Wednesday, September 12, 2018

New Voice: Traci Sorell on We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga

Traci & Frane in Tahlequah (Cherokee Nation Capital), June 2017
By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Traci Sorell is the debut author of We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga, illustrated by Frané Lessac (Charlesbridge, 2018). From the promotional copy:

Otsaliheliga (oh-jah-LEE-hay-lee-gah) is a word that Cherokee people use to express gratitude. 

Beginning in the fall with the Cherokee New Year and ending in summer, follow a full Cherokee year of celebrations and experiences. 

...this nonfiction look at one group of Native Americans is appended with a glossary and the complete Cherokee syllabary, originally created by Sequoyah.

What first led you to begin writing for young readers?

I decided to start writing for children when my son was four. I had collected picture books since my undergraduate days, particularly those featuring Native Nations. Having cycled through my books and those at my local library, I had difficulty finding any trade-published contemporary picture books featuring Cherokee children to read to my young son.

My tribe, the Cherokee Nation, is the largest in the U.S. with over 350,000 enrolled citizens. How could I not find a picture book about our present-day life and culture? It made me think that other Cherokee parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents must be facing a similar problem.

I contacted a friend from graduate school who I knew had trade published books for children for advice. I attended my first SCBWI conference about writing for children in October 2013 and decided to work toward a full-time career as an author in 2015.

For me, the biggest challenge was making sure I understood the craft, so I could execute the writing. I’ve written in many different formats previously, but I’ll admit writing for children is more difficult than writing a legal brief or code.

Writing sparse, lyrical text for a picture book to capture and hold the attention of discriminating younger readers is a challenge. They will put down the book, walk away, and turn their attention elsewhere when the story starts to drag – either from the words or the art. They have no sense of “I should finish this, so I’ll trudge on through it.” If they aren’t interested, it’s over.

Knowing that invigorates me to write at a higher level, knowing every word has to be precise to evoke the emotion, convey the information or provoke the question that I want reader to experience, understand or ask.

Thankfully, I have wonderful people – fellow authors, my agent and editors - who keep me on track if I stray from that.

Please share with us the story of your literary apprenticeship. How did you master the craft of picture book writing?

I read a lot of picture books written in the last three years to learn what the market wanted. That helped me shape and edit my own voice to write sparse, lyrical texts that sell in the marketplace.

I benefitted from reading Ann Whitford Paul’s Writing Picture Books (Writer's Digest, 2009) and connecting with published authors in my local KS-MO chapter of SCBWI who provided solid critiques and guided to me beneficial workshops to further develop my voice and craft.

From there, I expanded my network to connecting with other authors via social media, including you!

Congratulations on the release of We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga, illustrated by Frané Lessac (Charlesbridge, 2018)! What was the timeline between your creative inspiration and publication, and what were the major events along the way?

Traci & Charlesbridge editor Karen Boss
I wrote We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga in November 2015 because I won a free Skype critique for a nonfiction picture book from award-winning author Suzanne Slade through Picture Book Builders and had nothing to submit!

After revising based on her direction, I submitted the second draft with a few minor tweaks to some wording to ten publishers a month later. Then I sold it to Charlesbridge through the slush pile (unsolicited/unagented) in March 2016.

After Charlesbridge bought it, my editor Karen Boss did not have any substantial changes. She moved some text around based on the design layout that she wanted for the book, but otherwise the text was finalized quickly.

Karen asked if I had any illustrators in mind. I gave her a list of Native and non-Native illustrators. Frané was on that list. I was so overjoyed when she was selected.

The whole debut process has gone so smoothly, and I’m so thankful to work with such a wonderful team of people.

What did Frané Lessac’s art bring to your text? To what extent did you work together?

Her artwork takes the text to a different level. The detail, color, humor, and vivaciousness she creates in the book humbles me. I am in awe of what she envisioned and subsequently painted for all readers to enjoy.

Initially I sent her links to a variety of webpages and videos with information about the Cherokee Nation, its citizens, culture, and history to help her start her research.

Unless you’ve been to the Cherokee Nation (in the northeast corner of Oklahoma), you don’t have a feel for the people, landscape, flora and fauna. It’s not like anywhere else I’ve ever been in all my years of living, studying and traveling elsewhere on this continent and abroad.

Even though she didn’t receive the research travel grant she applied for, she traveled to the Cherokee Nation from Western Australia last summer anyway. So we actually got to meet and spend a few days together in late June 2017.

I introduced her to fellow Cherokee citizens who work in our cultural and museum programs. She shared her rough sketches and sought their input to make sure she had details correct.

We traveled with Will Chavez, the Assistant Editor of the Cherokee Phoenix, our tribal newspaper, where he showed her a number of historic sites, types of foliage and animals common in the area. He also provided photos from his extensive collection for her to consult later as she created the final artwork. My brother, a trained chef, prepared bean bread and hominy soup (both mentioned in the book) for her to sample.

So I like to think she enjoyed the hospitality that Cherokee people are known for, while also working to gather the information she needed to tell her part of the story.

Tell us more about how you decided to weave Cherokee words into the story and your approach on what to include in the back matter.

For me, this was integral. I was elated when Charlesbridge wanted the book because they had published the picture book, Itse Selu: Cherokee Harvest Festival (1994), featuring Cherokee words unitalicized throughout the text. It had served as an early model for me as a writer that including my tribe’s language would be welcome.


We decided to add the Cherokee syllabary next to the English phonetics at the bottom of each page where a Cherokee word appears because that’s how Cherokee people actually read and speak the language. They are not learning and speaking it from the English phonetics.

Regarding the back matter, I knew I needed to provide a little more context to some of the text and artwork. Given how little people know about contemporary Cherokee life, adding the Definitions section allowed me to amplify any reader’s understanding of what they read and saw on the page.

The Author’s Note explains my reasons for writing this nonfiction picture book.

Including the Cherokee syllabary as it is currently taught in the Cherokee Nation helps readers to know that this language continues to be spoken and is the foundation of our cultural identity as Cherokee people.

As a Native author, how does that identity element inform your writing and your role in the children’s-YA book community?

It’s the foundation of my voice and everything I write. I can’t separate it. My educational and professional backgrounds have also been focused on Native Nations, their citizens, culture, history, law and policies and how those have been impacted under the colonial regime of the United States.

When I research primary and secondary sources or read children’s literature for example, I notice what voices and experiences are included, who is left out and how that shapes the narrative and information the reader receives.

Right now, I feel like I have three main roles in the children’s-YA book community besides getting my writing out in the world.

First, I want to bring additional awareness to invisibility of Native people in the text as well as omissions of accuracy, so other writers recognize the importance of doing the work to get it right. We all are responsible for this.

Second, I want to recruit other Native creators – writers and artists – to create great works for children. You have been extremely supportive of me and other Native creators coming into the field, and I strive to emulate that. We have amazing storytellers in word and art in our Native Nations. I want children to know about and experience the stories those creators have to share. It’s imperative to recruit, educate and encourage others to make that happen.

Third, covering Native/First Nations authors, illustrators, and publishers for your Cynsations blog allows greater visibility for the craft of Native creators in the industry. I enjoy showcasing what their stories and artwork are offering for children and teens in this field. I appreciate you asking me to assist in this way.

What advice do you have for new Native or First Nations writers, starting out?

We Are Grateful poster
I believe it’s important to read broadly across the various genres of children’s literature and determine which one resonates most with your voice as a writer. I gravitated to writing picture books first because I have always loved poetry, sparse use of language, and beautiful artwork. Any writer new to this field needs to make that same determination for themselves.

Then, I recommend studying books published within the last three years within that chosen genre. You’ll be expected to know and state what are comparable titles when you submit your manuscript for consideration. So anticipate that and be prepared.

Next, try to find fellow writers in your genre at the level just above your skill set to read and critique your work. This will pay dividends because your writing will be elevated more quickly with trained eyes providing feedback.

It is extremely helpful if some of these writers are also Native creators. In my experience, finding fellow Native creators will be a huge boost of encouragement and support as you embark on this journey.

What can your readers look forward to next?

Since Charlesbridge bought We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga, I’ve sold two other picture books, At The Mountain’s Base, illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre (Kokila, Fall 2019) and Powwow Day illustrated by Marlena Myles (Charlesbridge, Spring 2020). Both are fiction. I’m looking forward to those being out in the world alongside We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga. I also have two picture book biographies, several other fictional picture books, a novel-in-verse and some poems in progress.

2 comments:

Michelle Schaub said...

Great interview, Cynthia and congrats on the publication of your debut book, Traci! I can't wait to read We Are Grateful and your upcoming titles. As an author who has also worked with Karen Boss, I agree that Karen and the entire team at Charlesbridge are wonderful. Cheers!

Cathy Ballou Mealey said...

Wonderful interview! I am so looking forward to seeing WE ARE GRATEFUL: OTSALIHELIGA in the hands of young readers. And HOORAY that there are more books in the pipeline for Traci! Your kind, generous and thoughtful presence has been a boon to the debut writers in the Epic18 picture book group.