We are so pleased to have this oppor­tu­ni­ty to inter­view the two women behind Harper­Collins’ new Native-focused imprint, Heart­drum: Rose­mary Bros­nan, vice pres­i­dent and edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor at Harper­Collins Chil­dren’s Books, and Cyn­thia Leitich Smith, chil­dren’s and YA author, writ­ing instruc­tor, and blogger.

Let’s learn more …

Rose­mary and Cyn­thia, you have worked togeth­er for more than 20 years, cor­rect? What inspired you each to co-found this imprint? What are your indi­vid­ual roles? What are your visions and hopes for this new imprint?

Cyn­thia: Yes! I’ve been blessed to know, learn from, and be inspired by Rose­mary since my ear­li­est days in the indus­try. Bril­liant author Ellen Oh, who is also the CEO and pres­i­dent of We Need Diverse Books, first con­ceived of the idea of found­ing a Native children’s‑YA book imprint. She pitched it to me over at a con­fer­ence hotel break­fast and cheer­ful­ly made the argu­ment that my per­spec­tive, pub­lish­ing his­to­ry, and teach­ing expe­ri­ence made me a fit. I thought it over for some months, and the turn­ing point was a Native children’s‑YA week­end writ­ing pro­gram called Loon­Song: Tur­tle Island in Min­neso­ta. I was blown away by the tal­ent and ded­i­ca­tion of the par­tic­i­pat­ing writ­ers. So, I reached out to Rose­mary, who’d been my orig­i­nal children’s edi­tor, is an indus­try leg­end, and has a long-stand­ing, proven com­mit­ment to inclu­sive pub­lish­ing. She made the dream come true.

Rose­mary Bros­nan (pho­to: Kate Mor­gan Jackson)
Cyn­thia Leitich Smith

Rose­mary: I am so for­tu­nate that Cyn­thia approached me to ask whether we would be inter­est­ed in start­ing a Native-focused imprint at Harper­Collins. I have been com­mit­ted to pub­lish­ing diverse books through­out my career, and the idea of a Native imprint excit­ed me right away. Our pub­lish­er jumped right on board as well.

Cyn­thia has been men­tor­ing Native children’s and YA authors for years, so this was a nat­ur­al step for her. She con­tin­ues to men­tor and work with poten­tial Heart­drum authors long before I see any man­u­script. When she feels that a man­u­script is ready for sub­mis­sion, either Cyn­thia or the author’s agent (if the author is agent­ed) sub­mit the man­u­script to me. I read it and think about it, and if I agree that the book would be a good fit for our list, I take it through the usu­al acqui­si­tions process, includ­ing pre­sent­ing it at an acqui­si­tions meet­ing. I’m the only edi­tor at Harper­Collins who works on the Heart­drum titles, so I edit them in the usu­al man­ner and work direct­ly with the authors. Cyn­thia sends me extreme­ly astute and help­ful edi­to­r­i­al com­ments as well. We tend to agree on every­thing, and we see the man­u­scripts and the imprint the same way.

We are excit­ed to have Native chil­dren and teens see them­selves in the books they read, and to also have non-Native read­ers read about the char­ac­ters in our books.

Why is the focus on the “present and future of Indi­an Coun­try” vital to your imprint? Why do you feel that is impor­tant for young readers?

Cyn­thia: We’re also selec­tive­ly pub­lish­ing a lim­it­ed num­ber of titles set in the 20th cen­tu­ry, which so far has coin­cid­ed with our non­fic­tion acqui­si­tions. Empha­siz­ing that Native peo­ple have a past (that con­tin­ued after the 1800s), present, and future is vital in cor­rect­ing era­sure and mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tion. Present day nar­ra­tives are espe­cial­ly impor­tant so that today’s Native kids (and their non-Native class­mates, friends, cousins, and stepsi­b­lings) get the mes­sage that they belong in the world of books, so that they real­ize any kid — includ­ing any Native kid — can be a hero that every­body cheers.

What types of books can read­ers antic­i­pate?  Your vision state­ment indi­cates that Heart­drum will offer a vari­ety of “inno­v­a­tive, unex­pect­ed, and heart­felt sto­ries by Native cre­ators.  I am intrigued by “inno­v­a­tive and unex­pect­ed.” Please elaborate.

Cyn­thia: It’ll be idio­syn­crat­ic, but for exam­ple, our anthol­o­gy, Ances­tor Approved: Inter­trib­al Sto­ries for Kids, fea­tures inter­sect­ing nar­ra­tives, col­lab­o­ra­tive­ly cre­at­ed by six­teen writ­ers and one illus­tra­tor that, in con­cert, reflect diver­si­ty with­in Indi­an Coun­try and among Indige­nous lit­er­ary approach­es. With a hand­ful of excep­tions, most Native con­tent in books for young read­ers has cen­tered the main­stream gaze rather than a Native sen­si­bil­i­ty, con­nec­tiv­i­ty, and our nar­ra­tive tech­niques. To be can­did, sim­ply show­ing the three-dimen­sion­al­i­ty of Native char­ac­ters — their human­i­ty — is groundbreaking.

Dawn Quigley’s adorable Jo Jo Makoons chap­ter book series is anoth­er exam­ple. It’s con­tem­po­rary and high­ly comedic with engag­ing word­play and an engag­ing, irre­sistible pro­tag­o­nist. Plus, it’s the first trade children’s series with a mod­ern-day Native pro­tag­o­nist from a major publisher.

Rose­mary: We are pub­lish­ing in all gen­res and for all age groups, from birth through young adult. We’re open to every­thing: pic­ture books, board books, fic­tion for all ages, non­fic­tion, graph­ic nov­els. We’re not con­cerned with over-explain­ing to a non-Native audi­ence, but we’re includ­ing back mat­ter that will be help­ful to read­ers and the adults who read the books with them.

We are work­ing with debut authors and illus­tra­tors as well as wide­ly pub­lished ones. It’s excit­ing! This should not be rev­o­lu­tion­ary, but it is: All the illus­tra­tors of the new books are Native, includ­ing the cov­er artists.

Do you have plans for pro­vid­ing guid­ance to edu­ca­tors on includ­ing your books with­in a year-round, all-sub­jects curriculum?

Rose­mary: Yes, our School and Library Mar­ket­ing depart­ment is top-notch and will be cre­at­ing mate­ri­als for edu­ca­tors. In addi­tion, many of the books include back mat­ter such as an author’s note, a glos­sary, etc. And Cyn­thia writes a note for each book, explain­ing why it was cho­sen for Heartdrum.

Bookol­o­gy’s tar­get­ed age group is Pre‑K through grade 7. Could you please tell us about a few of the books on your pre­mière list that you’d like teach­ers and librar­i­ans to rec­om­mend in their booktalks?

Rose­mary: Cyn­thia and I are extreme­ly excit­ed about the books that are com­ing out in 2021! In addi­tion to the afore­men­tioned Ances­tor Approved, edit­ed by Cyn­thia (Musco­gee Creek), and Jo Jo Makoons: The Used-to-Be Best Friend by Dawn Quigley (Ojib­we), we have a con­tem­po­rary mid­dle-grade nov­el by Chris­tine Day (Upper Skag­it), The Sea in Win­ter, which fea­tures a girl who is cop­ing with loss when she is injured and can no longer do bal­let. Heal­er of the Water Mon­ster by Bri­an Young is a debut mid­dle-grade nov­el by a Nava­jo author that takes place on the Nava­jo reser­va­tion, where a boy who is spend­ing the sum­mer becomes involved with Nava­jo Holy Beings. And the absolute­ly won­der­ful and bril­liant Sis­ters of the Nev­ersea is Cynthia’s mid­dle-grade nov­el that turns the sto­ry of Peter Pan on its head!

We are also repack­ag­ing Cynthia’s clas­sic books that we pub­lished some twen­ty years ago: the pic­ture book Jin­gle Dancer, the chap­ter book Indi­an Shoes, and the YA nov­el Rain is Not My Indi­an Name.

Thank you, Rose­mary and Cyn­thia, for whet­ting our read­ing appetites! We look for­ward to many years of books from Native writ­ers and illus­tra­tors under the Heart­drum imprint.

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Tracy Kampa
Tracy Kampa
3 years ago

I am so excit­ed by this news! Hav­ing a well-round­ed Amer­i­can Indi­an col­lec­tion is very impor­tant to me, and it is a project that I have been work­ing on for years. I am proud of our col­lec­tion, but find­ing new and inno­v­a­tive con­tent has been a chal­lenge. Birch­bark books has been my pri­ma­ry go-to for new titles, and they have bent over back­wards to be help­ful, but even many of the new titles they car­ry come from Cana­da. While there is excit­ing con­tent com­ing out of Cana­da, I am thrilled that great new Amer­i­can Indi­an titles will be far more acces­si­ble to every­one under the Heart­drum… Read more »