An in-depth interview with the award-winning author and advocate—a solutionary herself!
Meeg Pincus here, founder of Solutionary Stories. I'm so happy to share this interview with you. Cherokee Nation citizen and award-winning author Traci Sorell writes fiction and nonfiction books, short stories and poems for children. A former federal Indigenous law attorney and advocate, Traci lives with her family on her tribe’s reservation in northeastern Oklahoma.
Traci was also one of my very first friends in the children's book publishing world, as we hit it off in a nonfiction kidlit writing class before both of our debut books hit the shelves. I'm so grateful for everything Traci brings to the world. Her nonfiction books, and her as a person, are just what this blog is all about. So, without further ado, here's my interview with Traci...
Traci, congratulations on your two new nonfiction picture books, Classified and We Are Still Here! As you know, our blog highlights this nonfiction PB genre, specifically diverse books about real “solutionaries” who help solve problems for people, animals, and the planet.
Classified: The Secret Career of Mary Golda Ross, Cherokee Aerospace Engineer is what I’d call a classic “solutionary story”—a picture book biography about a barrier-breaking changemaker/problem solver. And I actually think that with We Are Still Here!: Native American Truths Everyone Should Know it’s the book itself that’s solutionary—as its existence helps solve the problem of a scarcity of accurate, compelling trade nonfiction picture books about Native American history and cultures.
Can you tell us a bit about these two new books and why you wrote them?
Wado (thank you), Meeg. It’s been wonderful to share both books with readers this year.
Classified shares how Mary Golda Ross blazed trails for other women and Natives to follow in math and engineering. She was the first female engineer for Lockheed Aircraft Corporation and the first Native female engineer in the United States. Wherever she went, the Cherokee values she was raised with accompanied her, but this wasn’t mentioned anywhere in other “women in STEM” anthologies for young people featuring her. I’m excited for young people to read about how one can take their whole self into whatever spaces they occupy and that a woman from Park Hill, Oklahoma already did – helping to put a man on the moon in the process!
I agree with your characterization of We Are Still Here! because I wrote it to address that scarcity. How is it possible that children could leave elementary school in this country without knowing that Native Nations still exist? Most textbooks have them disappearing by 1900. That’s A LOT of history, policies, laws and events no one has any idea about and absolutely should to be informed community members. It’s essential that young people understand Native Nations have always had agency. The historical and contemporary record is very clear on this. Tribal leaders and community members have been vocal about laws, policies and practices that have attacked sovereignty and been detrimental to our cultures and languages.
So I wanted to write an entry point book about all of this, which is why I knew it had to be a picture book, to give everyone a baseline of knowledge. I included the timeline to provide additional important information for those who wanted to dig deeper into all that hasn’t been taught in schools or represented in mainstream media or entertainment.
Both of these books should be on every library and classroom bookshelf! On that note, you were launched deep into the children’s publishing world with your smash, award-winning debut We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga in 2018 (one of my favorite picture books on my home shelf!). What have you seen and felt in terms of Native American/Indigenous representation in children’s books/publishing? And what would you still like to see change and grow?
The love for that book completely caught me off guard. I wrote that to address that while the Cherokee Nation is the largest tribe in the country, there was not a trade picture book showing our contemporary lives. I just couldn’t believe it! How was that possible in the twenty-first century? So I wanted to figure out how to be part of the solution and write a book that showed us living our lives through gratitude, one of our key values we’re taught to express all year long.
Within the last five years, you’ve seen more books authored and illustrated by citizens of Native Nations. The American Indian Youth Literature Awards are now announced during the American Library Association’s Youth Media Awards ceremony annually each January. Earlier this year, Heartdrum, a Native imprint within HarperCollins created by author-curator Cynthia Leitich Smith (Muscogee Nation) and editorial director Rosemary Brosnan, launched. I wish I could say that the numbers of books had dramatically increased, but we’re still a long way from where we need to be.
We all need to keep demanding and buying these books as well, right? And, as a follow up, why do you think it’s important to have compelling nonfiction picture books about Native American/Indigenous people and cultures, alongside fiction ones?
I think it’s critically important because for most non-Native people we only exist in fiction – problematic representations in books (the Little House series, Island of the Blue Dolphin, The Sign of the Beaver, etc.) still taught in schools in addition to non-Native created movies and television shows. We aren’t seen as neighbors, students in schools or colleges, co-workers, etc. and generally never have been. So nonfiction books are absolutely necessary for our own Native young people to see themselves as well as for their non-Native peers – both in historical settings and in the present.
Yes! So important. And on a more personal note, I know you’ve moved back home to the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma in recent years, after living in different places for some time. How has that affected your writing and the stories you want to tell—or how you’re telling them?
It definitely has affected my writing. I want to have even more of my books published in the Cherokee language, not just sprinkling Cherokee words into the story. The Cherokee Nation is working hard to help our younger citizens as well as adults learn the language that was taken from our grandparents and great-grandparents during the boarding school era. I want my works to be part of the solution to reclaiming our Cherokee language. Currently, At The Mountain’s Base (Kokila, 2019) has been released as an e-book in the Cherokee syllabary. I’d love to have all of my books translated in the future.
That would be wonderful! Is there anything you wish librarians/educators could know/do when choosing books and lessons on Native American and Indigenous history and cultures today?
Focus on representing Native Nations and their citizens in the present and not just in the past.
Do not select and use books in class or in presentations that refer to Native Nations in the past tense. We are very much still here, but I know this has been a common occurrence in fiction and nonfiction in the past.
Similarly, respect that our traditional stories are not viewed as myths or folktales by our elders or wisdomkeepers when shared with us, so do not present them as fairytales or fiction.
Examine who has created the book, their connection to the topic presented and the sources cited. A lot of problematic books about Native Nations, their history, contemporary reality and culture are still published today.
Such critically important tips, Traci, thank you so much. As we wrap up, please let our Solutionary Stories readers know where to find out more about you and your books!
Readers can always find me on my website, tracisorell.com. All of my current and forthcoming books are featured there along with my public appearances. Each of my books has their own page where classroom guides, interviews and other resources are available for free too. I can also be found on Twitter and Instagram via @tracisorell.