When Women Speak: Traci Sorell

Additional Essays in this series:
Kelly Starlings Lyon: How Do Women Use Art As Resistance?
Zetta Elliott: Nice Is Not Enough
Justina Ireland: There is A Minefield and You Will Become a Demolitions Expert
Ambelin Kwaymullina: On Being Loud and Hopeful
Cheryl Willis Hudson: Women Lead the Independent Publishing Movement
Laura Jiménez: Static Bodies in Motion: Representations of Girls in Graphic Novels
Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez: Don’t Call Me Strong
Maya Gonzalez: What Do I Speak Out? True Power Rises
Sujei Lugo: When Women Speak
Neesha Meminger: I Want to Talk About Power

The reasons why we speak out, why women continue to speak up, are as simple as they are complex. My sisters, keep talking so we can keep listening, moving and changing.

Why do you speak out?

I am a relative newcomer into the world of children’s literature. I never set out to write stories for children, although I’ve always loved reading and started growing my own picture book collection while still an undergraduate student. After my son was born, I examined my collection of books. Very few focused on contemporary indigenous culture thumbnail_TS SM Photo Oct 2017 (2)and people. Most books published with Native content feature traditional stories or pre-1900 historical events and people.

We still exist. I needed to figure out how to write stories for children and teens and, more importantly, encourage other Native people to do the same.

Through the process of writing, I’ve recently realized that I’m using the advocacy skills I honed while working as an Indian law attorney, legislative director and nonprofit executive. In those positions, I focused on addressing the needs of Native Nations and their citizens. My writing thus far mirrors that work.

“Those books left me feeling invisible.”

I don’t want Native children to enter a library and not be able to see themselves, their tribes and culture reflected there. I did not connect to any of the Native characters or images published in children’s books when I was younger. None of it resonated with my lived experience. Those books left me feeling invisible.

So I write stories and poems for Cherokee and other indigenous children to see them themselves as real and visible in today’s world. I actively network and encourage other Native writers to share their stories and art with children and teens. Exchanging kidlit manuscripts with other Native writers and helping each other polish our stories for submission is a gift I cherish. I send out a list of indigenous illustrators I’ve compiled to editors at trade and educational publishing houses. Why? Because we need so many more indigenous people in this field. Similarly, there is an education process that must happen with many editors, art directors, agents and other publishing industry staff, who, like most people in this country, know little about Native/First Nations sovereignty, culture and people. Thankfully in my experience thus far, everyone I’ve worked with has been hungry to learn and has been open to my feedback and that of others in the Native community featured in my stories.

The youngest generation in the United States today (kids in third grade and younger) are the first in the modern era to see a world where the white race is not a majority of the country’s population. That gives me a lot of hope, because I believe the children’s literature market will have to shift to give young readers, libraries, schools, and families greater variety of books, poems and artwork by writers and illustrators from Native/First Nations and communities of color because the population numbers demand it. If I don’t speak out about the lack of books featuring accurate, contemporary depictions of indigenous life and culture and what can be done to address that, then I’m only perpetuating the problem.

Traci Sorell writes fiction and nonfiction children’s books for the trade and educational markets with a focus on contemporary indigenous life and culture. Her first nonfiction trade picture book, WE ARE GRATEFUL: OTSALIHELIGA (Charlesbridge, Sept. 18, 2018), features the universal spirit of gratitude as experienced through modern Cherokee culture across the four seasons. Born and raised in northeastern Oklahoma, Traci is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation.

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