January 2021

Cynthia Leitich Smith and Rosemary Brosnan

Native creatives: Behind the scenes at Heartdrum
Heartdrum, a new imprint from HarperCollins Children's Books, is the first imprint at a major American publishing company dedicated to the work of Native American creators. Children’s author Cynthia Leitich Smith and veteran editor Rosemary Brosnan share its origin story.
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Heartdrum, a new imprint from HarperCollins Children's Books, is the first imprint at a major American publishing company dedicated to the work of Native American creators. Children’s author Cynthia Leitich Smith and veteran editor Rosemary Brosnan, Heartdrum's co-founders, share its origin story and explain why its existence is breaking important new ground.


Let’s start with the basics. What will readers be able to expect from a book with the Heartdrum logo on the spine?

Cynthia Leitich Smith: Amazing books! Gorgeous books, heartfelt books, funny books, books with page-turning adventures and books with illustrations so gorgeous, you’ll want to linger over them. All lovingly created by Native authors and illustrators.

What else? We’ll publish mostly contemporary fiction—realistic and fantastical—that centers young Native heroes. Why? Because we are still here, and that’s where the biggest need is in the body of literature. To a lesser extent, we’ll also offer 20th-century historical fiction and narrative nonfiction.

More specifically, that will translate to both concept and narrative books. We’re going to publish poetry and short stories, prose and graphic format books, picture books, chapter books, middle grade and young adult titles, and series and standalone titles. The characters and content will be Native, but that’s just the beginning. Those books will also be Indigenous in sensibility and literary styles, so that they offer young readers a more holistically authentic experience.

Where did the idea for Heartdrum come from?

Leitich Smith: Over a bountiful, laughter-filled breakfast at a Houston conference hotel, Ellen Oh—who is a powerhouse, a radiant literary voice in her own right and a game-changing leader in the movement for more inclusive and equitable books—cheerfully suggested that I might consider founding an imprint featuring books by Native creatives. I smiled, flattered, and slowly shook my head wistfully. I replied that I wasn’t famous or fancy enough to pull off something like that.

It sounded like a sky-high dream, and it was. I mulled over the idea for some months until I found myself teaching Native writers at the LoonSong Turtle Island workshop. The energy was incredible. My fellow Indigenous writers inspired me. I decided to try.

We’re publishing books that will help to correct centuries of misrepresentation, books I longed to read as a child, books worthy of this generation and those to come.

I approached Rosemary Brosnan at HarperCollins. Rosemary is my original children’s book editor and one of the legendary editors in the field. She has also been a devoted and accomplished diversity advocate since I first entered the field. Her response was oh-so enthusiastic—the dream came true, and we got to work!

Rosemary Brosnan: Cynthia wrote me an email in the fall of 2018, asking if I would be interested in working with her on a Native-focused imprint at HarperCollins. I jumped at the chance—and I’m happy to say that our President and Publisher, Suzanne Murphy, was on board immediately. I’m delighted that Cynthia thought of me for this wonderful venture.

You two have worked together for a long time. How did you first connect with each other?

Leitich Smith: I was taking that first piece of advice we often give to beginners, which is to write what you know. I was writing contemporary Native stories, and nobody seemed to know what to do with them. By simply reflecting the truth, I found myself largely blocked by the myth of erasure and by stuck-in-time stereotypes.

One day on a Listserv, I came across a mention of an editor seeking modern Native stories. It was Rosemary, of course! 


Brosnan: I believe that Cynthia submitted her first manuscript to me, for the picture book Jingle Dancer, around 1996. It was just what I was looking for: a beautifully written story about a contemporary Native girl. At the time, the few books about Native kids were often historical and/or not written by Native authors or illustrated by Native illustrators. The book came out under the HarperCollins imprint in 2000.

What does it mean to have an imprint like Heartdrum within a major publishing company like HarperCollins?

Leititch Smith: It’s been quite a journey. My early Native books were published between 2000 and 2002. Then the so-called “multicultural boom” went bust.

I have a clear memory from around 2005 of being told by a respected publishing professional that if Kevin Costner decided to make a sequel to Dances With Wolves, then maybe someone at a big publisher would be interested in acquiring another of my titles. I also recall being told, over and over, that kidlit already had Joseph Bruchac (and then Sherman Alexie), so there was no need for another Native author. One voice, always male, tended to be the default.

Joe himself published hard against that. He supported other Native authors. He even founded a small publishing house to publish Indigenous books.

Part of me wishes that I could travel back in time to that young writer I used to be, the one who at times struggled with discouragement and kept pivoting in search of a way forward in a rocky landscape.

I am a writer, so I kept writing. My Native-focused fiction was largely relegated to the occasional short story in an anthology, and along the way, I published two popular YA speculative fiction series, which was spooky fun. They also provided an opportunity for me to write diverse casts, including Native secondary characters, and to address social justice themes through metaphor.

Finally, a miracle! The steadfast efforts of long-term diversity advocates got a welcome turbocharge from a new generation who insisted on positive, proactive change immediately.

Part of me wishes that I could travel back in time to that young writer I used to be, the one who at times struggled with discouragement and kept pivoting in search of a way forward in a rocky landscape. I wish I could assure her that someday she would spin with joy thinking about the growth and strength of the Native kidlit community and find herself in a key position to help connect young readers with Indigenous narratives.

Brosnan: It’s a huge step. As an editor, I struggled for years to acquire books by diverse authors and to publish the books well. I heard numerous times from teachers and librarians at conferences, “I don’t have those kids in my class/school/community,” meaning, “I don’t need these books.”

We needed to see dramatic changes not only in the industry but also in society to be where we are now. I credit We Need Diverse Books and the Cooperative Children’s Book Center in Madison, Wisconsin, for helping me as an editor and for giving me talking points about demographics and about lack of representation, points that I could take into acquisitions meetings.

It feels like a dream come true to have Heartdrum, to work with Cynthia and to nurture new talent. I always think of the kids we are serving with the books, and that makes me so happy.

How would you each describe what you do at Heartdrum to someone who doesn’t know much about publishing?


Leititch Smith: Author-curator is a new role in book publishing. I’d say I’m the devoted auntie of the Heartdrum titles. I provide all kinds of support to their creators, help feather their nests, offer various gifts and celebrate both day-to-day life and the big milestones. That said, Rosemary is the in-house editor for the imprint, and she’s the one doing the heavy lifting.

Brosnan: As author-curator, Cynthia works with Native authors who are interested in writing books for children and teens and mentors these authors. Cynthia does a lot of work with the author before I even see a manuscript.

When a manuscript is ready for submission, it comes to me via Cynthia or the author’s agent, if the author has an agent. After that, it goes through the usual process. I edit each manuscript on the Heartdrum list—no other Harper editors are involved.

There are so many rewards with this work—the wonderful authors I get to work with, the debut authors we are launching, the kids who will see themselves portrayed in Heartdrum books, getting to work with Cynthia . . . the fun of it all!

But at Heartdrum, I have the I have the benefit of a partner who sends me valuable comments. Cynthia has years of experience teaching writing in the master’s program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts in addition to her own experience as an author. It’s extremely nice to have someone to work with like this, and Cynthia always has very helpful feedback. She will also give me specific Native feedback about things I may not be knowledgeable about. We are working very seamlessly together, and I love having her as my partner!

Leititch Smith: I tend to think of Heartdrum as the 2.0 version of our relationship. For me, it’s been a tremendous education and learning what really happens behind the scenes.

Rosemary, you’ve worked as an editor at HarperCollins for 20 years. What’s new and different about your work with Heartdrum, compared to your past work?

Brosnan: I follow the same processes with Heartdrum titles as with my other books, with the very important addition of Cynthia’s contributions that I mentioned above. What’s challenging to me is my ignorance of Native issues, which I have been trying to remedy. There are so many rewards with this work—the wonderful authors I get to work with, the debut authors we are launching, the kids who will see themselves portrayed in Heartdrum books, getting to work with Cynthia . . . the fun of it all! We hosted a Native Writers’ Intensive Workshop over four days in August, led by Cynthia, and that was one of the highlights of my year. There is so much talent out there, and the community has been so incredibly welcoming to me.

Cynthia, in addition to your work as an author, you run an influential children’s literature blog and you’re on the faculty of an MFA program. What has it been like for you to step into this new role at Heartdrum?

Leititch Smith: It's like everything I’ve done before has prepared me for what I’m doing now. When I first decided to leave law and journalism in favor of writing books for kids, my vision was always about more than my own writing—although being a writer is the most “me” thing I do.

My goal was to somehow belong in this magical world of those whose work lights the way through the most challenging thing any of us attempt: growing up.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Discover Cynthia Leitich Smith's books for children and young adults.


The main challenge is not being able to say “yes” to every project submitted, but we had envisioned publishing four to six books a year, and in our first year, we’ve got 23 books under contract. We’re still looking hard for projects, but we’re also happily bursting at the seams.

The rewards of this work are limitless. We’re bringing forth new voices, propelling rising stars and embracing well-established names, too. We’re showcasing books that will really speak to Native and non-Native kids, books that are intrinsically marvelous reads. We’re publishing books that will help to correct centuries of misrepresentation, books I longed to read as a child, books worthy of this generation and those to come.

What’s on your Heartdrum “bucket list”—elements or characteristics of books you’d love to publish but haven’t yet?

Leititch Smith: We want the Native creators to focus on writing and illustrating the books of their hearts, however they’re best rendered. So they’re in the driver’s seat. That said, I’d love for us to sign up a graphic novel, a novel in verse and a collaborative novel by Native creators writing very different, alternating points of view. The possibilities are endless, but those are a few that spring to mind.

Brosnan: We are looking for fresh voices and for writers who are committed to children’s and YA literature. I like to see what Cynthia brings in. She has impeccable taste!

How will you find fresh voices to work with and publish?

Leititch Smith: It’s a combination of putting out the word and being actively involved in the intertribal book community. Many Native creatives have reached out to me after learning about Heartdrum from, say, social media, Native radio programs or newspapers.

However, the majority are existing contacts or come through word-of-mouth referral. I’ve been a mentor and teacher in Native kidlit for a long time, so it’s not like I’m starting from scratch.

Beyond that, Heartdrum donates annually to the We Need Diverse Books Native Children’s and YA Writing Intensive, which I coordinate and teach along with fellow Native creative and industry faculty. This event is a wonderful skill and community builder.

When you’re reading a manuscript or looking at an illustrator’s portfolio, how do you know when you’ve found something you want to publish?

Brosnan: I’m looking for the same qualities I look for in any manuscript: a distinctive voice; appealing characters; a story that moves along; an author who is committed to their craft; a book that is different from what is already out there. With illustrators, we are more than willing to work with Native illustrators who are new to working on children’s books and to walk them through the process.

Leititch Smith: For manuscripts, I’m seeking high quality literary and visual art that centers young Native heroes and advances the conversation of Native literature. In nonfiction manuscripts, the second part of that equation is especially important.

To zero in on the visual aspect, the right match is so dependent on the project. It’s kind of like falling in love—transformative and elusive and yet somehow it happens every day.

As for the Native creators themselves, I’m most interested in community-oriented folks who are committed to serving the young audience and to building a body of work in children’s and YA books.

What are some Heartdrum titles you’re especially excited to share with readers in 2021?

Leititch Smith: Coming up this winter, we’ve got Christine Day’s tender sophomore novel, The Sea in Winter. It’s a touching, beautifully rendered exploration of a young girl’s journey to reclaim joy. Christine is already a significant voice in the field. Her debut novel, I Can Make This Promise, earned an American Indian Library Association Honor Award.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of Heartdrum's first book of 2021, Christine Day's The Sea in Winter.


We’re also publishing an innovative middle grade anthology, Ancestor Approved: Intertribal Stories for Kids, which I edited. It features well-established authors like David A. Robertson and Joseph Bruchac, up-and-comers like Traci Sorell and Eric Gansworth, and new voices like Andrea L. Rogers and Brian Young. While primarily comprised of short stories, lovely poems by new voice Kim Rogers and acclaimed author Carole Lindstorm bookend and help to contextualize the project.

The contributors, including the cover illustrator Nicole Niedhardt, collaborated on world building to offer a collection of narratives intersecting at a two-day intertribal powwow. It was a fascinating process involving an online message board, emails, texts, phone calls and in-person meetings. The result is a fully immersive vicarious experience wherein each entry can stand alone but reading them together adds layers of resonance.

We’re also looking forward to summer releases—debut author Brian Young’s timely and timeless middle grade novel Healer of the Water Monster, Dawn Quigley’s hilarious Jo Jo Makoons: The Used to Be Best Friend (the first in a chapter book series!), and my own Sisters of the Neversea, a modern Indigenous update to J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan.

Beyond that, we’ve lined up a bounty of picture books, including nonfiction and more novels, too! Publishing geeks should brace for several deal announcements to come.

Get the Book

The Sea in Winter

The Sea in Winter

By Christine Day
Heartdrum
ISBN 9780062872043

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