Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Q&A with Cynthia Leitich Smith




Cynthia Leitich Smith is the author of the new middle grade novel Sisters of the Neversea, a retelling of Peter Pan; and the editor of the new anthology Ancestor Approved: Intertribal Stories for Kids. She is the author-curator of Heartdrum, a Native-focused imprint of HarperCollins Children's Books, and she teaches in the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts. A citizen of the Muskogee (Creek) Nation, she lives in Austin, Texas.


Q: The Publishers Weekly review of Sisters of the Neversea called it "A sharp, contemporary retelling of a classic that puts the focus on the Indigenous kids this round." Why did you decide to write this updated Peter Pan novel?


A: Sisters of the Neversea (Heartdrum, June 2021) centers the girl characters and Native characters, who are of course not mutually exclusive!


Practical Lily Roberts (Muscogee) and her imaginative British stepsister Wendy Darling are co-protagonists navigating adventures in Neverland and on the Neversea.


As for why I wrote the story, the answer goes back to its origins. J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan (or Peter and Wendy) is a classic book that included Native characters but in a stereotypical way. So it seemed high time to reframe them more positively as three-dimensional human beings who rang true.


My hope is that my retelling captures all the magic and wonder of the original while also inviting in and respectfully validating a wider range of young readers.

Q: As you were writing the book, what did you see as the right balance between the original Peter Pan and your own take on the story?


A: Stories often spring from a combination of two questions: (a) What If? and (b) So What?


I asked myself: What if the fantastical world of J.M. Barrie was real and present today? Which characters and magical beings would benefit from more development?


Then for each, I asked myself how having engaged in that further development would impact the story.


Let’s say, for example, the Fairies considered themselves guardians of the island and its wild animals while the Merfolk took responsibility for the Neversea and the creatures who consider it home. How then would their respective mindsets and resulting duties impact life and interpersonal relationships?


Q: You also have another new book out, an anthology titled Ancestor Approved: Intertribal Stories for Kids (Heartdrum, 2021). What inspired you to create this book, which recreates the powwow experience?


A: My initial motivation was to celebrate the diversity within Indian Country by bringing together Native and First Nations poets and short-story writers to offer young readers a cooperative narrative set during a two-day intertribal powwow.


Because characters and setting elements repeat from story to story, the young reader is submerged in the experience and connects more deeply to the collection in the whole.


Q: How did you choose the pieces to include in the book, and how did you decide on the order in which they would appear?


A: I selected the writers, and each crafted writing in their voices, shared from the heart. It was my job to facilitate their collaborative effort and offer developmental support along the way.


As for the order of stories, Native fiction is often nonlinear, and that’s true herein. That said, the narratives loosely begin prior to the event, track with its progress, and end afterward. Beyond that, two exquisite, wider-lens poems bookend the collection to provide context and underscore themes.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m delighted to share that my next middle grade project is another collaboration—the first book in the Blue Stars graphic novel series (The Vice Principal Problem).


My co-author is award-winning novelist Kekla Magoon, our illustrator is debut Molly Murakami, and the book is being published by Candlewick Press in fall 2022.


The series is about two very different cousins from a Black and Native family who draw on their respective strengths to form a superhero duo.

Q: Anything else we should know?


A: A highlight of my days is curling up on a love seat with my beloved, long-haired Chihuahua, named Gnocchi. I’ll admit that she sometimes dozes off while I’m reading fresh drafts, but I can always feel her encouragement and support.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Cynthia Leitich Smith. Photos of Cynthia Leitich Smith and of Gnocchi by Christopher T. Assaf, cover art for Sisters of the Neversea by Floyd Cooper, and cover art for Ancestor Approved by Nicole Neidhardt.

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