MSLA 2022: Cynthia Leitich Smith keynote “Brighter Days”

Author, teacher, publisher, and Muscogee Nation citizen Cynthia Leitich Smith delivered this morning’s keynote, “Brighter Days: Decolonizing Hearts, Minds, and Books for Young Readers.” She began by zipping through a number of essential fiction and nonfiction titles for young readers, from picture books through YA; children’s literature created by Indigenous authors shows that “we have a past, a present, and a future…[we are] 3D human beings with a full range of emotion.” Still, Native books make up just under 1% of books published for kids. “Why does that matter? Because we are still here….There are Native families in your communities whether you realize it or not.” Some of these families may “fly under the radar,” partly because of distrust of schools due to past experience. That makes it more important, not less, to seek out, include, and promote literature from Native authors, because “erasure hurts kids” and “Native kids deserve more from all of us.”

Cynthia acknowledged that publishing is a slow-moving industry and “it’s hard to shake up the conventional wisdom,” but with new imprints, new interest, and demand from readers, librarians, and booksellers, change is happening. Ellen Oh and the WeNeedDiverseBooks movement have been a force for positive change, as have conferences like LoonSong and Kweli. “A single voice…is not enough,” Cynthia said, referencing times that she had been told by people within the publishing industry that there was no room, or no need, for more Native voices beyond one or two established ones. But we need more: Cynthia said, “factual information won’t matter or stick if we don’t focus on humanity. Native people are modern people. Every kid, Indigenous or not, can benefit from exposure to Native values” like honoring ancestors, and protecting land and water. Young readers deserve a chance to read the work of many Native authors.

Librarians, Indigenous or not, have an important role to play; we are ambassadors to young readers. “We can’t do it without your continued support and activism,” Cynthia said. When purchasing and recommending books, she had a few tips: look for tribal specificity, contemporary settings, present tense, accuracy, and stories of daily life. It’s important to balance the historical with contemporary, tragedy with joy. “Unfortunately, much of what happened in the past is terrible”: Acknowledge oppression, integrate joy and achievement, address miseducation, and be aware that there is diversity within each tribal nation and “identity is nuanced.”

This is year-round work and should not be limited to Native American history month or just around Thanksgiving. Cynthia encouraged us to integrate Native books into year-round reading, and across the curriculum: “We are Native every single day…[it is] otherizing and marginalizing” to limit reading books by and about Indigenous people to one time of the year. “All kids deserve a truthful education.” She closed on a hopeful note, declaring, “We are seeing tangible progress” in the publishing industry and in Hollywood.

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