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: 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.