Bartography Express, October 2018
Hey there!

What a month the past one has been, and what a month the next one is going to be.

The past few weeks have brought the official publication of my newest book, What Do You Do with a Voice Like That? The Story of Extraordinary Congresswoman Barbara Jordan , including a celebration at Jordan's former home.

That event brought together her colleagues and students; friends of the family that lives there now; members of Jordan's sorority, Delta Sigma Theta ; authors, librarians, and a host of others — a marvelous cross-section of folks to share in the joy of having this book out in the world. The evening was unforgettable.

On the day of publication, I visited a school that still had a 1983 telling of Barbara Jordan's story on the shelves in its library. You'll see a comparison between the old and the new at the top of this newsletter. In this light, Ekua Holmes' stunning illustrations stand out all the more.

Lone Star Literary Life interviewed me about What Do You Do with a Voice Like That? , and I contributed an essay, " 22 More Barbara Jordan Books, Please ," to the Nerdy Book Club.

In the book's third (!!!) starred review, School Library Journal called What Do You Do with a Voice Like That? "a timely yet subtle call-to-action ... supremely accessible ... extraordinary ... An essential purchase for nonfiction collections." 

And the newspaper in my home city pointed out that “ Voice is one of a plethora of new books for young readers that underscore the importance of engaged citizenship and the civic duty of peaceful resistance — and the need for inspiration to do both."
You may remember that Barbara Jordan is not the first member of Congress that I've written a book about, and just this week I saw for the first time the new paperback version of my book The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch , illustrated by Don Tate.

The availability of this inexpensive edition of John Roy Lynch’s story — briefly summed up, he transformed himself from enslaved teen to congressman in 10 years — means that essential, relevant, too-often-overlooked truths about U.S. history will make it into more schools, more homes, and more young readers’ understanding of where we've come from.

As for the month ahead, I'll get a chance to meet those readers at:

It's time now for my monthly Q&A and new-book giveaway. My guests are Traci Sorell and Frané Lessac , author and illustrator of We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga (Charlesbridge Publishing), a picture book celebrating modern Cherokee life.

In a starred review, Shelf Awareness described the book as "an elegant representation" of the concept of gratitude, adding that " We Are Grateful has the ability to resonate with any reader."

If you’re a Bartography Express subscriber with a US mailing address and you want to be the winner of a copy of We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga , just say so in a reply to this email before midnight on October 31 , and I’ll enter you in the drawing.

In the meantime, please enjoy my two-question Q&A with Traci and Frané.

Chris: Traci, this is your first picture book, and Frané, you've illustrated more than 40 children's books. How did your respective experiences in collaborating on We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga compare to your expectations, prior experiences, or understanding of the traditional "way things are done" in making picture books?

Traci: I knew that the standard practice in the publishing industry is that the author does not typically have any input on who the illustrator will be nor does the author have direct contact with the illustrator about the artwork. The editor is the connection point between the two. I agree with that practice for the majority of picture books the industry publishes. But when the subject concerns Indigenous peoples, I think it's different. 

Tribal Nations are largely invisible in the mainstream culture of the United States. They also disappear from most school textbooks after 1900, so few non-Native people have any knowledge of tribal sovereignty, the dual citizenship realities of tribal citizens, and what our contemporary lives are like. Some don't even know we still exist. Our Charlesbridge editor, Karen Boss, recognized this and understood that in order to ensure we all created the most accurate book possible, Frané and I would need to be in contact. 

Many authors I know writing nonfiction picture books share their resources with the illustrator to assist their work, knowing the illustrator has the bigger responsibility to ensure what's represented in each image is accurate to the time period and subject. It requires a lot of attention to small details. I also followed the same course with Frané, sending links, recommending books, etc.

But it was her decision to come to the Cherokee Nation that I believe allowed her to create a visual story that deeply resonates with Cherokee people as much as it does non-Cherokee people who read the book. 

Frané and I met in Tahlequah, the capital of the Cherokee Nation, last summer. She brought rough sketches for feedback. I introduced her to a variety of Cherokee citizens, especially those working in our cultural and education programs, who provided input on her art. We toured the area, so she could see the land, plants, animals and water.

My brother (a professional chef) even prepared the foods mentioned in the book for her to sample! She was very thorough in what she needed to see, experience and understand before she returned home to paint. I appreciated that so much about her approach to the work and commitment to get it right.
On the left is author Traci Sorell (photo by Kelly Downs Photography), and on the right is illustrator Frané Lessac.
Frané: I was deeply honored to be considered to illustrate We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga . Not only would we hear from Traci Sorell, a new Native American voice, but the topic of portraying Cherokee people in a contemporary setting was important, meaningful and valuable.

There simply aren’t enough books that present this kind of information, if any at all. I have a history of illustrating diverse books by diverse authors, and the need to meet Traci and research in the Cherokee Nation to get the details right, was of the utmost importance.

On first read, I fell in love with Traci’s lyrical and beautiful words. But I was also bursting with questions. I couldn’t wait until I received the green light from our publisher, Charlesbridge, to email each other directly. Then our adventure began. Traci suggested significant books and links to websites, YouTubes, and more to help with my initial research.  

After 24 hours of multiple connecting flights from Western Australia, I arrived in Tahlequah to finally meet Traci. Within a few minutes, we were finishing each other’s sentences.

We took over all the tables in our hotel’s reception area, spreading out cane flutes, stickballs, baskets, clothing, photographs — all the things Traci had brought along for me to see and hold. Over a couple of days together, she introduced me to members of the Cherokee community, staff from the Cherokee Heritage Center, and her family, who all played a vital part in bringing our book to life. I cherished the opportunity to have such a close collaboration with Traci and feel blessed for this experience. 

Chris: Now that We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga is out in the world, what's next for each of you — individually or together, literary or otherwise?

Frané: At the moment, I’m finishing off the final art for my next book, Under the Milky Way — a factastic night-time tour around the USA and Canada. I wrote the story to work on two levels. Each location starts with a single sentence, followed by the refrain "under the Milky Way." Scattered throughout each illustration, I’ve added snippets of fun facts of what makes these places special. The book will be published by Candlewick Press in 2019.

What’s next? I’m packing and heading back to the USA to catch up with Traci in early October. We’re off on an action-packed, fun-filled tour on the East Coast , speaking at festivals, libraries, schools and bookshops. It’s perfect timing for us to share We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga with readers, as the book similarly starts in the fall. What I miss most about living in West Australia, is the changing colors of the autumn leaves. Hoping to jump into a big pile — just like the scene in the book!

Traci: My family just relocated from the Kansas City area to the Cherokee Nation in northeastern Oklahoma. So I'm busy unpacking boxes while simultaneously getting ready for our East Coast tour events. I'm ready to escape the heat and join Frané in the leaf pile!

My first fiction picture book comes out in the fall of 2019. Published by Penguin Random House's new imprint, Kokila and illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre, At the Mountain's Base is a circular story in verse about a pilot engaged in battle whose family back home awaits her safe return.

Then, in the spring of 2020, Powwow Day , a fictional picture book illustrated by Marlena Myles and published by Charlesbridge, will be out in the world. I also have a few poems coming out in picture book anthologies too in the next two years.

Thank you, Chris, for featuring us and We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga . We appreciate your support.