Author Spotlight: Traci Sorell
August 31, 2018
Today we are pleased to feature picture book author Traci Sorell and her new book WE ARE GRATEFUL: OTSALIHELIGA illustrated by Frané Lessac (Charlesbridge, Sept. 4, 2018). Enter to win a copy!
Tell us about yourself and how you came to write for children.
I was born and raised in the Cherokee Nation where nearly all of my family still lives. I lived in small towns as well as out in the country and spent time on the area lakes. My husband, son and I are in the process of relocating back there now. Yes, I know, it’s daunting to think about at the start of a book launch! But we’re excited to spend more time with family, be involved with Cherokee tribal events and live next to a lake. I also want a more peaceful setting to write.
I decided to start writing for children in the summer of 2013 when my son was four. I had collected picture books since the early 1990s, particularly those featuring indigenous cultures. Having cycled through my books and those at the local library, I could not find any trade-published contemporary picture books featuring Cherokee children to read to my young son.
There were many books featuring our ancestral stories like THE FIRST STRAWBERRIES by Joseph Bruchac, others spotlighting revered historical figures like SEQUOYAH, a Cherokee-English bilingual Sibert Honor Book by James Rumsford, or, of course, those chronicling other well-known events like the Trail of Tears - but none showcasing contemporary life.
My tribe, the Cherokee Nation, is the largest in the U.S. with over 350,000 enrolled citizens. How could I not find a picture book about our present day life and culture to share with my son? It made me think that other Cherokee parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents must be facing a similar problem. So I set out to figure out how to write for children.
Congrats on your debut picture book, WE ARE GRATEFUL: OTSALIHELIGA. Tell us about it and what inspired you.
The idea for WE ARE GRATEFUL: OTSALIHELIGA came after a trip to my local library. I read a lot of picture books from there, generally ten or more each week and usually published within the last three years. I loved the structure and concept in Joanne Rocklin’s 2015 fictional picture book, I SAY SHEHECHIYANU, illustrated by Monika Filipina (Kar-Ben). It follows a child’s first experiences through the four seasons as a new sister, going to school, etc. with her saying the Jewish blessing "Shehechiyanu" each time something new is experienced.
While there is not an equivalent blessing in Cherokee said each time something new is experienced, Cherokee culture teaches us to express gratitude daily. So I wrote a nonfiction picture book that starts in fall when, similar to the Jewish religion, the Cherokee New Year occurs. It shows contemporary Cherokee people expressing gratitude for the blessings but also the challenges we encounter in each season through our culture.
Some blessings or challenges presented occur in every season like the mourning the loss of a loved one or remember our ancestors’ sacrifices on our behalf. Otsaliheliga [oh-jah-LEE-hay-lee-gah] is the English phonetics for "we are grateful" in Cherokee. I am extremely grateful for my family, my fellow Cherokee citizens, the illustrator Frané Lessac and the entire team at Charlesbridge for helping me bring this nonfiction picture book to children everywhere.
How has your background and past profession helped you in your writing?
As a dual citizen of the Cherokee Nation and the United States, I have a different perspective on history, law, politics and culture than what I see reflected in children’s literature or school textbooks. Native Nations, their sovereignty and their citizens are virtually invisible in any post-1900 life presented in the United States. Once I realized that, I knew I could be busy the rest of my life writing books and recruiting other Native creators to do the same. Children, regardless of their citizenship, need to see and learn about everyone within the books they read.
Also, I’m grateful for all the editing I received in my undergraduate, graduate and legal education. It helped my later professional writing immensely. Writing starts out solitary, but ultimately, it’s a collaborative process once it is to be shared with the world. The more trained eyes on my graduate thesis or a legal code I drafted, the better. This goes double now that I’m writing for children. They have very discriminating taste and know what they like. I appreciate the feedback from fellow writers, my agent, an editor and others involved in creating a book.
Was your road to publication long and windy, short and sweet, or something in between?
From what others have said to me, it appears to be short and sweet. I joined SCBWI in August 2013 and attended the Oklahoma regional conference two months later. It wasn’t until I attended two workshops in the summer of 2015 that I committed myself to making this a career. I wrote WE ARE GRATEFUL: OTSLALIHELIGA in November 2015, submitted it to ten publishers a month later and sold it to Charlesbridge through the slush pile in March 2016.
What projects are you working on now?
Lots of stories and poems in the works! I am writing a short story for Cynthia Leitich Smith’s middle grade anthology set at a powwow. Two picture book biographies are competing for my brain’s time and attention. I have a couple of other fictional picture books out of submission that I’m revising. And there’s that novel-in-verse that I need to get finished too.
I’ve sold two other picture books, AT THE MOUNTAIN’S BASE illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre (Kokila, Fall 2019) and POWWOW DAY illustrated by Marlena Myles (Charlesbridge, Spring 2020). While the text is finalized for both, I have to keep track of their production processes and gear up for the publicity accompanies the launches.
What are the one or two things you did that most helped you in your writing and publishing career?
Having a supportive family and community of fellow creators has been integral. Embarking on a new career path is not easy. The glacial pace of this industry has required me to transition slowly to being a full time writer. So the daily love and support of those closest to me keeps me going.
Second, the advice of fellow kidlit author and dear friend, Ann Ingalls, has proven true again and again. She told me early on to always have multiple projects and lists of ideas going simultaneously. I couldn’t agree more. When I’m stuck on how to revise something or a source I need for research isn’t yet available at the library, I can turn to another project and keep creating. That bit of wisdom has been invaluable.
What is one thing most people don't know about you?
When you meet me, I doubt you would think I am an introvert. Generally, I am comfortable speaking to crowds, groups and new people. While I love those interactions, it wears me out. I purposely schedule time to unplug and recharge. I have to be mindful of that during this upcoming book launch season.
Where can people find you online?
My website: www.tracisorell.com
Twitter & Instagram: @tracisorell
Traci Sorell writes fiction and nonfiction books as well as poems for children, featuring contemporary characters and compelling biographies—the type of books she sought out in her school and public libraries as a child. Traci is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation and lives in northeastern Oklahoma where her tribe is located.
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