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An Interview with Children's Author
Cynthia Leitich Smith

by Debbi Michiko Florence

Cynthia Leitich Smith is the author of picture book, JINGLE DANCER, and young adult novel, RAIN IS NOT MY INDIAN NAME. She has a background in law, journalism, and public relations, and is an enrolled member of the Muscogee-Creek Nation. Cynthia's previous book, JINGLE DANCER, was named a Notable Children's Trade Book in the Field of Social Studies (Selector's Choice), a Texas 2 x 2 book for ages 2 through second grade, as a finalist in the children's/YA division of the Oklahoma Book Award, and as runner-up for the Storyteller Award from the Western Writers of America. It was also named a Cooperative Children's Book Center Choice for 2001. Her young adult novel, RAIN IS NOT MY INDIAN NAME, was released this summer to buzz reviews. Cynthia Leitich Smith for RAIN IS NOT MY INDIAN NAME was selected as one of the 2001 Writers of the Year in Children's Prose by Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

I've always enjoyed writing. I was a library kid growing up. That was my every-Saturday-morning destination. Reading led me to writing, and I was composing poems by first grade.

I shifted that focus to journalism, I think because it seemed practical. No one says "starving journalist" (though maybe they should) like they say "starving writer." I was the editor of my junior high and high school newspapers, and I majored in journalism at the University of Kansas. Even as a student at Michigan Law School, I spent my summer reporting at the Dallas Morning News rather than working for a law firm.

I made the jump to full-time fiction writer when I was still very young—only 27—and actually quit my day job in the law office of the Department of Health and Human Services (don't try this at home unless you have a trust fund—I didn't). It wasn't that I disliked law. It just wasn't my dream, my passion.

I knew that I had to go for it though after the bombing in Oklahoma City. I was absolutely haunted by it, and it reminded me of how fragile life can be. Some dreams shouldn't wait.

Why did you choose to write for children/young adults?

After those years of working with law words like herewith and aforementioned, I began to increasingly appreciate the genius of clarity. Children and teens know what they love, what they can't put down. They question. They push. They're an audience to respect. And they give me hope in return.

You created and maintain a wonderful website on children's literature resources. What made you decide to do that?

To me, writing for children isn't just about my books. It's about being a member of the children's literature community. Sharing, giving, contributing. It's an honor to be an advocate for reading, to introduce readers to a variety of voices, and to provide educational support for teachers and librarians. The Web site is my way of reaching people world wide every day with the message that good books matter.

You mention on your website that you believe that all readers can enjoy children's literature, not just the targeted audience. I heartily agree with you, since I read middle grade and young adult novels almost exclusively. But what would you say to an adult who doesn't currently read children's literature to sway them into trying it? What books would you recommend to those adults who want to delve into YA or MG literature?

Ah, the grown-ups. Funny things, grown-ups. So many of them forget that the pleasures and challenges of childhood can be pleasures and challenges for the entirety of their lives. Richer lives.

I don't worry too much about grown-ups, but I will tell you that the lucky few prefer quality literature to some marketing sub-genre. The only difference between children's and YA literature as opposed to adult literature is the format and age of the protagonist. We've got our gems, and we've got our junk. But some of the best books today are written for kids and teens.

As for some recommendations:

For young adult literature: ARMAGEDDON SUMMER by Jane Yolen and Bruce Coville (Harcourt, 1998); BACKWATER by Joan Bauer (Putnam, 1999); BLOOD AND CHOCOLATE by Annette Curtis Klause (Delacorte, 1997); BREAKING RANK by Kristen D. Randle (Morrow, 1999); A DOOR NEAR HERE by Heather Quarles (Delacorte, 1998); THE HOUSE YOU PASS ALONG THE WAY by Jacqueline Woodson (Bantam, 1997); KISSING TENNESSEE AND OTHER STORIES FROM THE STARDUST DANCE by Kathi Appelt (Harcourt, 2000); LOCKED INSIDE by Nancy Werlin (Delacorte, 2000); WHEN KAMBIA ELAINE FLEW IN FROM NEPTUNE by Lori Aurelia Williams (Simon & Schuster, 2000).

For middle grade novels: THE BIRCHBARK HOUSE by Louise Erdrich (Ojibway) (Hyperion, 1999); DANCING IN CADILLAC LIGHT by Kimberly Willis Holt (Putnam, 2001); IN THE SHADE OF THE NISPERO TREE by Carmen T. Bernier-Grand (Orchard, 1999); A SINGLE SHARD by Linda Sue Park (Clarion, 2001).

For picture books: COME ON, RAIN by Karen Hesse, illustrated by Jon J. Muth (Scholastic, 1999); DON'T NEED FRIENDS by Carolyn Crimi, illustrated by Lynn Munsinger (Doubleday, 1999); ESCAPING TO AMERICA by Rosalyn Schanzer (HarperCollins, 2000); MONSTER MAMA by Liz Rosenberg, illustrated by Stephen Gamell (Philomel, 1993); RIVER FRIENDLY, RIVER WILD by Jane Kurtz, illustrated by Neil Brennan (Simon & Schuster, 2000); THERE GOES LOWELL'S PARTY by Esther Hershenhorn, illustrated by Jackie Rogers (Holiday House, 1998); WHAT A TRULY COOL WORLD by Julius Lester, illustrated by Joe Cepeda (Scholastic, 1999).

And many more! Readers are welcome to visit any of my Web site bibliographies for more suggestions!

In your novel RAIN IS NOT MY INDIAN NAME, Cassidy, the protagonist, deals with death/grief and coming to terms with her Native American heritage. How have your own experiences influenced Cassidy and her story?

The novel was inspired by an experience from my mid-teens. I was at a cross country meet, and a boy crossed the finish line and died of a congenital heart problem. It was my first experience with the sudden death of a peer. I forever wondered after that about how healing happens. Not that moment of hope, but the long hard work of making the days seem real again. RAIN is about that healing, focusing on the experiences of the protagonist six months after her best friend has died.

With regard to heritage, Cassidy Rain and I are both racially and intertribally mixed bloods of Creek Nation. To me, it's just natural to offer a diverse cast of characters in large part because that diversity is reflected in my own so-called real life.

You've also written a picture book JINGLE DANCER. How was writing a novel different from writing a picture book? Do you have a preference?

The novel certainly took longer, but the picture book format is more difficult for me. With a picture book, you have to get just the right idea. It's not as malleable to revision. I would rather create novels, though I've just finished a collection of short stories to be published in a chapter book. Right now, that's my favorite project.

How has your cultural background/history influenced your writing?

Definitely the knowledge and experiences related to Native heritage are intertwined in my work, but that's true of the lessons of my Euro-American heritage as well. We can write only from what we know or are capable of finding out. I do a lot of research, but I'm more of a personal writer than a research writer. If nothing else, I'm the undisputed expert of my own experience (such that it is).

What inspires you?

My cats, young readers, the Texas sunshine, the blur of a dancer's fan, the way it feels when I sink into my denim bean bag, the stories of my grandparents, other authors, the taste of apricots on vanilla iced cream. Everything, but most of all my elders.

What's the best thing about being a writer?

Knowing that I'm spending my life doing what I love, knowing that I've been able to connect with young readers, knowing that I never have to wear panty hose again.

What is your typical work day like?

I wake at about 10 a.m., answer email (I get a lot of email), hit the gym, do administrative work in the afternoon, break for dinner and quality time with my very cute husband, and then do the real, hard, bleeding work of writing between midnight and four a.m. Really.

What do you do when you're not working?

Am I ever not working? I travel. I watch HGTV and Buffy The Vampire Slayer. I lift weights. I talk to Grandma on the phone. I eat sushi. I read comic books. I stare at Lake Austin and sip blackberry tea. I go to plays and concerts. I wander through museums. I read, read, read quality children's and YA books. I soak up living so that it can fuel the writing more.

What can readers expect next from you?

My upcoming book, INDIAN SHOES, is a collection of short stories about a Cherokee-Seminole boy and his grandfather living in Chicago. They're (hopefully) touching and (hopefully) humorous. It will be released in summer 2002.

Thank you so much for the opportunity to do this interview!

Interview © Copyright 2001, by Debbi Michiko Florence.
See also my follow-up interview with Cynthia, in 2004.


This interview appeared in the October, 2002 issue of Book Friendly,
a local Friends of the Library newsletter.

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what's new?

For more about Cynthia, her books, and about children's literature, see her excellent website.

You can also read her blogs at Cynsations and Spookycyn.

See also my follow-up interview with Cynthia, in 2004.