Ancestor Approved: An Interview with Cynthia Leitich Smith, founder of Heartdrum

I’ve known Austin’s remarkable and talented Cynthia Leitich Smith for well over a decade now. In that time she’s been a friend, mentor, and one of the most creative and generous authors I’ve had the privilege of working with. Author, teacher, and now head of the Harper’s new, Native-American focused imprint, Heartdrum, Cyn has always strived to make a difference, to nurture other creatives, and push herself to new projects. It was my pleasure and honor to get to talk to her about all of this as the first Heartdrum book, SEA IN WINTER, arrives onto shelves. Here’s what she had to say!


Joy Preble: To begin, could you tell us a bit about the origin story of your new Heartdrum Imprint at Harper? How did it come about? How would you define its mission?

Cynthia Leitich Smith: It all began over breakfast! My dear friend and fellow author Ellen Oh asked me to meet her to catch up at a librarian-conference hotel restaurant. I thought it was just two friends getting together, but she had a mission. 

Ellen, who is also the CEO & President of We Need Diverse Books, pitched the idea of launching a Native American focused imprint at a major publisher. 

I remember laughing and telling her that I was nowhere near famous or fancy enough to do such a thing, but she is a persuasive talker and the idea lingered in the back of my mind. 

Months later, while teaching at a Children’s-YA workshop for Native writers called Loonsong: Turtle Island, I decided to at least give it a try. The writers there included Dawn Quigley, Angeline Boulley, Carole Lindstrom—really amazing voices. Kids were really missing out by not being exposed to more wonderful stories about Indigenous young heroes.

From there, I reached out to beloved editor Rosemary Brosnan at HarperCollins, and here we are today at Heartdrum in partnership with WNDB! It’s so exciting. 


JP: I’d definitely say that’s exciting! I love that it happened as so many things in publishing do - from conversation and relationships and the heartfelt need to let readers see themselves on the page.  How would you describe your own journey from author to leading Heartdrum? What led you from your own writing to a more editorial sort of focus?

CLS: I’m still joyfully writing. It’s not so much a shift in focus, but rather a new way of continuing to mentor and teach. In addition to creating my own books, I’ve been on the faculty of the low-residency MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts since 2004. 

Meanwhile, I’m active in my local creative community and am honored to offer support to new and up-and-coming voices here in Texas. So, much of the developmental work I’m doing with Heartdrum writers is the next logical step from there.


JP: And speaking of developmental work and mentoring, I know you don't want to pick favorites, so let's just chat a bit about one of your first new releases, a fabulous middle grade by Christine Day, called THE SEA IN WINTER.

I love that it's this complex, emotional balance between the main character's loss of self and healing within the story of her family and cultural identity. What drew you to this book? 

CLS: First, Christine is a tremendous talent. Her debut novel, I CAN MAKE THIS PROMISE, was released to starry acclaim and won an American Indian Youth Literature Honor Award. She writes with sensitive and emotional resonance. Christine really understands the hearts of middle graders. 

Beyond that, turning to THE SEA IN WINTER, I love the theme that pain is temporary, that hope will see us through.


JP: Definitely two important themes, always, but especially right now. As you mentioned, all these wonderful books are arriving through your partnership at Harper with Rosemary Brosnan, whom you refer to as a 'legendary editor,' which I think is a darn good description. Tell us about your work process with Rosemary. How does the magic happen?

CLS: Legendary indeed! Really, Rosemary is doing all the heavy lifting. She’s the editorial genius that makes this all possible, but I engage in varying degrees of developmental conversations with writers to get manuscripts ready for her eye and then chime in, often providing Native cultural context.


JP:  How has your teaching and your work getting Heartdrum launched impacted your own writing? Are you a different writer now than when you started out?

CLS: Time is ever more precious and hope ever more bountiful. It’s been deeply heartening to be on the receiving end of so much support and enthusiasm for Native children’s and teen literature. That makes me feel better about stories I’m writing, too.

Beyond that, I’m especially aware that, with the conversation of books expanding, it’s important to really think about how I can best make the most meaningful contributions. I’m stretching more creatively, and I have more courage to do that.


JP: So much of writing for the long haul is about courage, isn’t it? Courage and reinventing and broadening what we know and what we want to know. For those who are looking to broaden their reading of Native authors, what are some of your 'must reads', both including and beyond those published or forthcoming from Heartdrum?

CLS: I hope readers will look for my middle grade anthology, ANCESTOR APPROVED: INTERTRIBAL STORIES FOR KIDS. It’s a collection of intersecting stories by 17 authors, poets and an illustrator, set at an intertribal powwow, that burst with hope, joy, resilience, the strength of community and Native pride. Contributors include fellow Texas authors Tim Tingle (Choctaw) and Andrea L. Rogers (Cherokee). 

Speaking of Andrea, she has an excellent historical chapter book out: MARY AND THE TRAIL OF TEARS: A CHEROKEE REMOVAL SURVIVAL STORIES. It’s heartfelt, compelling and meticulously researched. Andrea is an educator, and she really knows how to write a page-turning story that teaches on the sly. 

Beyond that, oh my! I could go on forever, but these will get you started.

For kids: The BIRCHBARK HOUSE series by Louise Erdrich; INDIAN NO MORE by Charlene Willing McManis and Traci Sorell; and WE ARE WATER PROTECTORS by Carole Lindstrom and Michaela Goade.

For teens: ELATSOE by Darcie Little Badger; FIREKEEPER’S DAUGHTER by Angeline Boulley, and IF I EVER GET OUT OF HERE by Eric Gansworth.

For lots more suggestions and educator resources, check out my website here.


JP: That is one awesome reading list! Our Not YA Mama’s Book Club for adult YA readers has already devoured and loved ELATSOE! What can we expect in the coming months and years from Heartdrum and from Cynthia Leitich Smith?

CLS: Coming up this May from Heartdrum, look for HEALER OF THE WATER MONSTER, a debut middle grade novel by Navajo author Brian Young, as well as JO JO MAKOONS AND THE USED-TO-BE BEST FRIEND, the first in a humorous chapter book series by Dawn Quigley. Both are available for pre-order.

As for me, I already mentioned ANCESTOR APPROVED: INTERTRIBAL STORIES FOR KIDS, but I’m also thrilled about my middle grade novel, SISTERS OF THE NEVERSEA, a modern Indigenous update on J.M. Barrie’s classic PETER PAN. It’s a contemporary story of family, friendship, and fairy dust, centered on the female characters of Neverland and its surrounding waters. The book is coming out on June 1, just in time for summer reading! You can pre-order it, too.


JP: Thanks for such a grand interview, Cynthia Leitich Smith! And I guess this is a great time to let everyone know that when your SISTERS OF THE NEVERSEA arrives in June, we’ll be hosting a virtual panel of Heartdrum authors, including you! Details to come! 


For more information on Cynthia Leitich Smith, you can visit her website here

This interview has been edited for clarity.

The Sea in Winter By Christine Day Cover Image
ISBN: 9780062872043
Availability: NOT ON OUR SHELVES. Usually Arrives in 4-7 Business Days
Published: Heartdrum - January 5th, 2021

Ancestor Approved: Intertribal Stories for Kids By Cynthia L. Smith Cover Image
ISBN: 9780062869944
Availability: NOT ON OUR SHELVES. Usually Arrives in 4-7 Business Days
Published: Heartdrum - February 9th, 2021

Sisters of the Neversea By Cynthia L. Smith Cover Image
ISBN: 9780062869975
Availability: NOT ON OUR SHELVES. Usually Arrives in 4-7 Business Days
Published: Heartdrum - June 1st, 2021

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