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Heartdrum: HarperCollins launches new imprint dedicated to Indigenous stories

The hope for Heartdrum, is that publishing a wider range of books will expand expectations, and allow writers to express themselves outside of what publishers view as an Indigenous person's authenticity.
Cynthia Leitich Smith is helping lead a new Indigenous children's book imprint from HarperCollins, called Heartdrum. (Sam Bond Photography)

Author Cynthia Leitich Smith has a law degree — and wrote that detail into her first picture book, Jingle Dancer. 

Before sending the book to the editor she was working with, she sent it to a different editor, who gave her a bit of criticism that has still stuck with her to this day.

"[She] said to me, 'Well, it's very aspirational to think that someday there might be Native women attorneys. But since we're not there yet, it doesn't seem fair or authentic to reflect that in the pages of children's books,'" she recalled.

"I remember thinking, 'OK, I'm sitting right here, I can show you [my] law degree.'"

Smith doesn't think the person meant any ill will by those comments, but it's a microcosm of why she wanted to be part of a new children's imprint, called Heartdrum.

Heartdrum, in partnership with HarperCollins Children's Books, will publish works by Indigenous writers. The hope is that publishing a wider range of books will expand expectations, and allow writers to express themselves outside of what publishers view as an Indigenous person's authenticity.

"There are certain persistent stereotypes that may be interfering with appreciation of their authentic work," Smith said. 

In her 20-plus years experience as a children's book author, Smith said she noticed that while a few luminaries and rising stars made their mark in the genre, the number of Indigenous writers hasn't really changed. 

It's really easy for people to move through the world ... with blanket stereotypes that apply to masses. But if you give them an individual on the page, they connect with that person. And that starts to break down misconceptions.- Cynthia Leitich Smith

The new imprint plans to publish a range of genres and styles for children of all age groups — with the idea that everyone deserves a bit of representation in the works they see.

The type of Indigenous representation Smith saw while surveying the market for young readers turned up a common trope. Characters were usually male, alone in the wilderness, who acted as guides for other characters.

Smith said it wasn't something she could relate to.  

"We're seen as kind of mythical, otherworldly creatures," she said. "I don't know who these boys are, but I can't find my own car in the parking lot of the shopping centre." 

That's the type of storytelling Smith hopes Heartdrum will challenge. "It's really easy for people to move through the world ... with blanket stereotypes that apply to masses. But if you give them an individual on the page, they connect with that person. And that starts to break down misconceptions."

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