Interview: Cynthia Leitich Smith

We’re super excited Cynthia Leitich Smith was willing to answer some questions about her writing and life. Hearts Unbroken, her newest novel, releases today and we’re so happy it’s out in the world for readers to enjoy.

Summary: When Louise Wolfe’s first real boyfriend mocks and disrespects Native people in front of her, she breaks things off immediately and dumps him.

It’s her senior year, anyway, and she’d rather spend her time on her family and friends and working on the school newspaper.

The editors pair her up with Joey Kairouz, the ambitious new photojournalist, and in no time the paper’s staff find themselves with a major story to cover: the school musical director’s inclusive approach to casting “The Wizard of Oz” has been provoking backlash in their mostly white, middle-class Kansas town.

From the newly formed “Parents Against Revisionist Theater” to anonymous threats, long-held prejudices are being laid bare and hostilities are spreading against teachers, parents, and students—especially the cast members at the center of the controversy, including Lou’s little brother, who’s playing the Tin Man.

As tensions heighten at school, so does a romance between Lou and Joey—but as she’s learned, “dating while Native” can be difficult. In trying to protect her own heart, will Lou break Joey’s?

Thanks so much for taking the time to tell us a bit about your writing. Why did it take you so long to write Hearts Unbroken?

For the previous fourteen years, I’d been immersed in my Tantalize-Feral universe, which spawned seven prose novels, two graphic novels and three short stories.







Yes, I also wrote a couple of picture books, a few creative nonfiction essays and a few unrelated short stories along the way, but that fantastical world was a long-time centerpiece of my creative life.

It took time for me to move on. I miss it.

The last book, Feral Pride, came out in paperback this month. The heroes include a wereopossum who was a sidekick back in the first book, Tantalize, which published in 2007. Really, you gotta love a Possum!

Beyond that, it was a time of personal transition. A divorce after 21 years of marriage, downsizing and embracing my cozy condo, returning to teaching in the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

All of that required reconfiguring my life, and in the meantime, I was still traveling heavily and speaking at book events all over the U.S.

But mostly the challenge was inherent in embracing Native-focused writing again. There’s a tremendous responsibility in that. A complicated psychology.

My approach is to center Native literary traditions and sensibilities, which means I needed to brace for pushback. I’m not new to children’s-YA publishing or its related discourse. I have an editor friend who’s said to me, “Your problem is that you know too much.”

She’s right. As I drafted scenes, I was aware of exactly how they’d resonate with many Native teens and, to varying degrees, alienate many influential, non-Indian adults. I kept typing anyway.

In Hearts Unbroken, Ms. Wilson says that the journalism team specializes in story. What is the importance of story in your life and in our world?

Story is (a) how all of us make sense of who we are and (b) how we connect (or disconnect) with each other. It’s also how we go to war.

Consider today’s politics. The stories that ring true to you influence your beliefs, the votes you cast (literally at the ballot box and metaphorically in how you live your life). That decides who rises in power, the changes in our society, daily life of us all.

Story may be not everything, but it fuels and shapes everything.

More personally, for me, the stories that had the biggest influence were foundational ones. Stories told by my grandparents and great aunties around kitchen tables.

Your newest book brings up the issue of problematic favorites. What’s your take on that? What do you think we should do when we discover racist or otherwise problematic actions or writings from creators whose work we enjoy or even love?

First, there’s never been a neutral power structure or voice dictating what’s considered a “classic.”

Likewise, the concept of “universal” appeal really means mainstream appeal. So, let’s jostle that mindset.

Beyond that I’ve heard folks advocate both for completing ignoring/excusing any horrid content/creators and for burning them all down.

As for me, I suggest an approach that’s developmentally age appropriate. E.g., Not every children’s book that could provide historical-political conversation fodder in a college-level Education class needs to be read aloud to second graders. The fact that it has “always” been read to second graders doesn’t matter.

It’s a text-by-text question of course, but the answers should be thoughtful and put today’s young readers first. There are always other books to pick from to provide a better fit.

That said, all stories are in conversation with one another. As a writer, I’m inclined to engage on the page, sometimes with affection, sometimes with mixed feelings and sometimes in written combat.

Cynthia at BookPeople

Lou’s brother Hughie said he missed Tex-Mex food. What do you think you would miss if you left Texas?

I’d miss Tex-Mex, too. The Austin children’s-YA writing and illustration community. My local independent bookstore, BookPeople. Palm trees. Prickly pear cacti. Wildflowers. The sunshine. The larger-than-life personalities. Some of my favorite people at times seem to have stepped out of a tall tale.

I also love saying “y’all” and “all y’all” and knowing the distinction between them.

The school librarian gives Hughie a signed copy of Eric Gansworth’s novel If I Ever Get Out of Here. What inspired you to include that specific title? Also, were there any librarians who went the extra mile for you in your childhood or teen years?

Eric Gansworth is a tremendous literary talent and what he’s already accomplished in YA cannot be overstated. Memo to The Powers That Be: please highlight his work with a major national award already. Preferably one with a hefty cash prize.

Anyway, Eric’s novel is a lovely fit for Hughie, who’s fielding his own struggles as a high school freshman.

The librarians who made the biggest positive difference for me were my earliest at the Mid-Continent Public Library in Grandview, Missouri, outside of Kansas City.

They infused the place with warmth, welcome, magic, a sense that this was somewhere I belonged. They let me know that books would always be there for me.

What project, writing or otherwise, are you most excited about right now?

Multiple projects – a middle-grade anthology of Native voices (new and established), an incredibly fun fantasy novel, and a super-secret, can’t-tell-you, pining-to-tell-you, oh-it’s-so-awesome-but-I’m-still-sworn-to-secrecy manuscript. So much to come!

Watch for our review of Hearts Unbroken on Friday.  Likely not a surprise to anyone, but I’m going to be recommending you get it now and read it soon. To learn more about Cynthia Leitich Smith, visit her website and blog.