Cynthia Leitich Smith is at the head of Heartdrum, a new Native imprint from HarperCollins.
Cynthia Leitich Smith is at the head of Heartdrum, a new Native imprint from HarperCollins Children’s Books.

When Ellen Oh, founder of the nonprofit We Need Diverse Books, told author Cynthia Leitich Smith that she should start her own imprint, she immediately scoffed at the idea.

“I thought somebody more important or fancy should do that,” said Smith, a member of Oklahoma’s Muscogee Creek Nation and an Austin, Texas-based writer of young adult books focused on Native characters and issues.

Oh pointed out to her that most author-curated book imprints were started by men, and that “maybe there were other points of view out there.” Smith is now at the helm of Heartdrum, a Native imprint of HarperCollins Children’s Books that will launch its first titles in winter 2021.

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“I’m cautiously optimistic,” Smith said, adding that children of color, LGBTQ kids and children with disabilities all yearn to see themselves reflected in the books they read. 

“If publishing wants to have a future, we need to send out the message early that they all belong in the world of books,” she said.

An Industry in Flux

Questions of representation have rocked the publishing industry, as traditionally underrepresented voices charge that their work is still routinely being sidelined for that of well-known authors who — with some exceptions — are white, cisgender, heterosexual and able-bodied.

In January, two separate controversies erupted over the publication of American Dirt and My Dark Vanessa — books that explore immigration and sexual consent, respectively, but in a way that critics charge has been “usurped by whiteness.” That was followed by Barnes & Noble’s botched plan to promote classic novels featuring covers with people of color, what some called “literary blackface.”

But in the midst of this dissent, there is an increasing number of women- and nonbinary-run publishers who are dedicated to promoting diversity.

Jill Soloway, creator of the Amazon show “Transparent,” recently announced an Amazon book imprint called TOPPLE Books, which will publish fiction and nonfiction by writers who identify as women of color, gender non-conforming, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or queer.

“We live in a complicated, messy world where every day we have to proactively re-center our own experiences by challenging privilege,” Soloway said in a statement, according to The Verge. “With TOPPLE Books, we’re looking for those undeniably compelling essential voices so often not heard.”

The Feminist Book Booster

Jennifer Baumgardner, who founded indie feminist outlet Dottir Press in 2017, believes that readers — including children — should be exposed to conversations around topics such as race and sexual assault. Her New York City-based press has published titles such as Intersection Allies and Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness.

Jennifer Baumgardner launched Dottir Press, a feminist publishing outlet, in 2017.
Jennifer Baumgardner launched Dottir Press, a feminist publishing outlet, in 2017.

“Even though we’re in this moment where it seems like everything is coming out, there are still a lot of stories that are not told, and people who have experienced them get the message that no one wants to hear it,” Baumgardner said. “Mainstream publishing is playing catch-up.”

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Baumgardner, whose own books and films explore abortion, sex and rape, said she is publishing an illustrated middle-grade book about incest involving an 11-year-old child called You Ruined It, by Anastasia Higginbotham.

“There’s this added level of shame and silencing around [incest],” Baumgardner said. “That is a space for sensitive publishing.”

She also emphasized the importance of supporting the arc of a writer’s life.

“It’s not just about taking risks, but actually supporting someone’s career and someone’s voice because you believe the culture or the world is better with those voices in it,” she said.

A Path Forward

Nicole Johnson, executive director of Maryland-based nonprofit We Need Diverse Books, echoed the idea that promoting diversity doesn’t start and end with a book. She said one of the program’s goals is to “encourage diversity not only in the children’s and YA books being published, but in the staff working behind the scenes at publishing houses.”

Dottir Press is publishing a middle-grade book called "You Ruined It" by Anastasia Higginbotham. (Credit: Dottir Press)
Dottir Press is publishing a middle-grade book called “You Ruined It” by Anastasia Higginbotham. (Credit: Dottir Press)

She applauded major publishing houses like HarperCollins for taking on new imprints that embrace a wider range of voices.

“Imprints focused on diverse authors and books take the conversation about addressing the gap in publishing into a mainstream context,” Johnson said.

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Smith said she is excited about introducing the public to a slate of new authors who write speculative fiction and other contemporary work with Native voices.

“For a long time, Native representation was problematic — inaccurate, overwhelmingly historical — but we are people with a past, a present and a future,” Smith said.

“These are books that are going to resonate more with audiences,” she added. “I mean, everyone likes a good story.”