Perspectives: Cynthia Leitich Smith

  • Job title: Author-curator 
  • Job description: Outreach, developmental writing support, writer mentorship, in-house consultations, and ambassadorship of books and their creators
  • Education: William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communication, The University of Kansas; The University of Michigan Law School
  • Background: Author and faculty member, Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program
  • Location: Texas

The beginnings of Heartdrum

Over a conference-hotel breakfast, author Ellen Oh, co-founder and CEO of We Need Diverse Books, suggested that I consider launching a Native-focused imprint at a major trade publisher. At first, that sounded like a pie-in-the-sky kind of dream. But after reflecting on the need for some months, I reached out to legendary editor Rosemary Brosnan at HarperChildren’s. She enthusiastically embraced the idea, and we now work together on the Heartdrum children’s and young adult book imprint.

What an author-curator does

I’m a longtime author and faculty member of the MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts. (I also publish with Candlewick Press.) Much of the mindset and skill set that go with all that transfer well to Heartdrum. 

Typically, I offer the author a few (two to four) rounds of feedback for revisions prior to, if appropriate, sending a manuscript to Rosemary for consideration. Agents are also welcome to send to her/us directly for immediate consideration, but I’ve found that those submissions that have been the subject of a prior craft exchange with me (even if it’s just my green light!) are much more likely to be acquired. 

At that stage, my goal is by no means to ready the manuscript for copyediting but rather to help bring it to a stage where the full potential shines through. It should be noted, though, that if/when a manuscript is ready to go, I’ll prepare a thoughtful note for Rosemary, offering my reasons for supporting it, including any relevant context related to the Native cultural content.

Once we’ve acquired a manuscript — Rosemary handles that entire legal-financial process — I often offer craft feedback alongside hers and consult about potential illustrators as well as all stages of the art, the marketing copy, teacher guides, and so forth. I also help with promotion — both officially, through opportunities facilitated by Harper Marketing, and unofficially, through my own grassroots efforts. 

Along the way, I’m available as a mentor of sorts to our authors, especially because many of them are new or up-and-coming voices.

Working with authors

The goal is to bring forth the author’s vision in a way that best serves the intended audience. So I begin from a place of respect, erring toward suggestions and questions, while making it clear that we must be mindful of the young-reader experience and developmental reading level.

Perspectives on lessons learned

I wish that I’d taken a longer view from the start, but maybe that’s impossible until you’re in a position to do so. Part of me longs to go back in time and offer a pep talk to the young writer I once was, to let her know that someday enough hearts and minds in publishing would open up to welcome in more than one prominent Indigenous voice at a time. s

I also spent too long worrying about other people’s misinformed preconceptions about me and my intertribal creative community. It’s better for my productivity and mental health to focus on the work itself and on those who’re genuinely supportive. 

Notable projects

I’m wowed by all of our authors’ and illustrators’ work. 

The Jo Jo Makoons chapter books are written by Dawn Quigley and illustrated by Tara Audibert. It’s the first contemporary trade chapter book series featuring a Native American protagonist and published by a major publisher. It’s also smart, hilarious, and radiates heart.

Debut author Brian Young’s middle-grade novel, Healer of the Water Monster, is about an everyday Navajo boy who comes to the aid of a holy being while navigating family dynamics.

American Indian Youth Literature Award winner and author Christine Day’s middle-grade novel, The Sea in Winter, is extraordinarily emotionally intelligent. Many educators have pointed to it as an excellent book for young readers needing to process the loss of childhood normality during pandemic times.

Big picture, so far we’ve published five books — including my own middle-grade anthology, Ancestor Approved: Intertribal Stories for Kids, and middle-grade novel, Sisters of the Neversea. To date, Heartdrum titles have garnered a combined 19 starred reviews, which is truly jaw-dropping, especially for the size of the list.

Notes on diversity

As an author-curator, I’m in a new role in the industry, one that’s still being defined. But I have been a working writer in children’s publishing since the late 1990s. Change is slower than it should be, but it’s remarkable how much of a positive difference one person can make in the conversation and community. If it weren’t for genius author-activist Ellen Oh first suggesting the idea to me, Heartdrum wouldn’t exist.

Are you an editor of color who would like to be featured on Outside-the-Book.com? Email Info@StyleSheetsEditorial.com.

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