I heard about SISTERS OF THE NEVERSEA from a friend of mine, and as soon as I learned the premise, I reached out to Cynthia Leitich Smith for an interview. Not only is she is an award-winning author, her latest novel offers a Peter Pan reimagining from an indigenous perspective:
Stepsisters Lily and Wendy embark on a high-flying journey of magic, adventure, and courage—to a fairy-tale island known as Neverland.
Lily and Wendy have been best friends since they became stepsisters. But with their feuding parents planning to spend the summer apart, what will become of their family—and their friendship?
Little do they know that a mysterious boy has been watching them from the oak tree outside their window. A boy who intends to take them away from home for good, to an island of wild animals, Merfolk, Fairies, and kidnapped children.
You have been named the 2021 NSK Neustadt Prize Author for Children’s Literature. Congratulations! What has this honor meant to you?
It came as such a surprise! I’m pleased that the committee recognized Native writing for young readers and that they viewed my wide range of creative work as a strength. I write across age markets, genres, and formats—constantly pushing myself and taking risks. My hope is that my receiving the award encourages more writers to stretch themselves over the course of their careers.
And it’s proof that stretching yourself pays off! SISTERS OF THE NEVERSEA offers a reimagining of the Peter Pan story from an Indigenous perspective. What inspired you to write this story, and what do you hope readers can take with them once they finish reading?
I’m fascinated with the conversation of books over time, and the fact that J.M. Barrie elected to include Native people in his classic fantasy raised several questions for my inner child. How did they get to Neverland? Why were they behaving so strangely? It presented an opportunity to revisit, modernize and rebuild the world with regard to Indigenous representation, but also in deepening and expanding on the fantastical characters (merfolk, fairies!) and even Peter and his pirate foes.
In addition, I’ve always been especially fascinated with Tinker Bell—likely due to her pop-culture status—and Tiger Lily, if only because Native girl characters have been so rare in books for young readers. This led me to center them both, along with Wendy, as more significant characters.
My hope is that young readers enjoy the book as a page-turner, full of adventure, excitement and heart, but also perhaps reflect a bit on the meaning and importance of family.
And hopefully they can see themselves in the story too! You are also the author-curator of the Native centered Heartdrum imprint at HarperCollins. What, if anything, has surprised you in taking on this role?
My emotions skew more to hope and gratitude. It’s been heartening that we’ve acquired so many excellent projects by Native and First Nations writers and illustrators.
My (pleasant) surprise is that the team at Harper has been so open to embracing and enthusiastically supporting more projects than originally envisioned. At first, we’d talked about four-to-six books a year. Going into the second year, we have more than 20 books out or in various stages of production.
According to the 2019 annual statistics from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, only 1% (or 37 total) books published were by and about Native people. So, at Heartdrum—along with Native-friendly houses like Lee & Low, Levine Querido, Charlesbridge, Reycraft and the Kokila imprint—we’re contributing to a statistically significant improvement in terms of diversity and inclusion.
Very exciting, and so needed! What are some of your current projects?
My most recent works are focused on the middle-grade category.
ANCESTOR APPROVED: INTERTRIBAL STORIES FOR KIDS was released in February 2021. It’s an anthology of interconnected short stories and poems by Native voices with Navajo illustrator Nicole Niedhardt providing cover art. The idea is that the characters intersect at the Dance for Mother Earth powwow. The book has received four starred reviews, and among other honors, has been named a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard selection.
We’ve already talked about SISTERS OF THE NEVERSEA, so I’ll just say briefly that the idea is that Lily Roberts (Muscogee) and Lily Darling (white British American) are stepsisters living with their family in Tulsa when a certain fairy, a flying boy, and his shadow lure them to a magical island of fairies and wild animals, a magical sea of merforlk and storybook pirates. So far, the book has received three starred reviews, and among other honors, has been named one of Kirkus Reviews Best Books for June.
Coming up next, I’m thrilled about THE BLUE STARS: THE VICE PRINCIPAL PROBLEM, a graphic novel, co-authored by Kekla Magoon and illustrated by Molly Murakami about two cousins from a Black and Native family who become superheroes in their diverse urban school and community.
Beyond that, my current, untitled work in progress is a spooky, romantic young adult novel, set in the same world as HEARTS UNBROKEN and RAIN IS NOT MY INDIAN NAME.
If your readers are interested in learning more about Native fiction for young readers, I encourage them to visit the resources on my author website: https://cynthialeitichsmith.com/lit-resources/read/diversity/native-am/
For more about Cynthia’s other books, go to https://cynthialeitichsmith.com/