Power, Agency, and Life’s Big Questions in Hearts Unbroken by Cynthia Leitich Smith

cynthia_leitich_smith_editing-607x400.jpgMy friend and colleague Cynthia Leitich Smith has long been an articulate voice for change in the field of writing for young readers. Cyn is practically a publishing industry all by herself, with picture books, short stories, realistic novels, poetry, and an astonishingly comprehensive online archive of children’s and YA literature resources. Her Tantalize/Feral novels and graphic novels take a Bram Stoker inspired magical world and populate it with ghosts, vampires, were-creatures of all kinds, demon dogs, shapeshifters and fallen angels—in the process, they give power to female characters and reflect back upon the real world, raising questions of trust, betrayal, and community. Her chapter book of interlinked stories, Indian Shoes, presents a warm, funny relationship between the generations, while upending old tropes about Native peoples and Indian artifacts.

As Cynthia puts it: “the industry must move past the tendency to put creatives in genre boxes as well as to underestimate Native authors and authors of color. We are not here to exclusively write books about landmark historical events with obvious social studies tie-ins. We can rock those stories, but we can also do so much more and do it spectacularly.”

Hearts UnbrokenAnd she does. Hearts Unbroken is about Louise Wolfe, suburban Muscogee Creek girl, doing her best to make her way in a largely white high school. Lou has aspirations and talents, a loving family, and, above all, a mind of her own. The prejudice around her, both unthinking and intentional, awakens Lou’s inner activist. At the same time as she’s taking determined steps to achieve her journalistic ambitions, she is forced to question herself, and the answers aren’t always comfortable. Context is offered by a delightful younger brother, cousins and others in the extended family, a lively and contentious school community, and the whole, messy context of the real political world. A diverse array of secondary characters include irascible school paper editor, Karishma Sawkar, neglected best friend Shelby, journalism teacher Ms. Wilson, heedless ex-boyfriend Cam, and Lou’s current love interest, Joey Kairouz. It’s America in microcosm, with all the inherent contradictions you might expect. For an additional treat, readers of Rain is Not My Indian Name will be delighted to see Cassidy Rain Berghoff make a cameo appearance in this book.

Through Lou’s character, Hearts Unbroken articulates questions about representation and voice and the human tendency to pronounce judgment with limited information. Questions about history and privilege, about who has power and why. Questions that push back against the daily indignities, large and small, so often inflicted upon minorities in America, and push back as well on commonly held historical myths and emblems of public nostalgia. This novel left me, to quote Cyn herself, “heartened, optimistically Unbroken, and a believer in the power of Story.”

 

Sean Petrie on Typewriter Poetry Rodeo

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Keep an eye out for these typing poets in your neighborhood. They can make you laugh and cry with their 3-minute personalized poems. That is correct. Three minutes. Personalized. Guaranteed.

Vintage typewriter poet and master of flying verbs Sean Petrie helped Cynthia Leitich Smith and me (lucky us!) when we led our Highlights Foundation workshop last year. Sean threw in some poetry rodeo for us one evening and I have been a committed fan ever since.

61xJk-TYSdL._SX435_BO1,204,203,200_So I talked to Sean about the forthcoming typewriter rodeo book–yes, there is a book!

[Uma] Typewriters. Poetry. Ad libbing. Put those three things together for me—how did this begin?
[Sean] It was not really anything we planned — and definitely not something we expected to last more than a day!
Back in 2013, Jodi wanted to do a booth at the Austin Maker Faire, which is a craft festival, featuring people who “make” things, from art to robots to wooden spoons.  But Jodi, who had an editing business, wasn’t sure exactly what she would make — maybe something with words?  So she put out a call to me and two other friends (Kari Anne & David), to do a booth called “The Word Makers,” where we would make up poems, stories, anything involving words, for the festival guests.  Kari Anne collected old typewriters, so she brought those along, because she thought it might be fun to use them, too.  But really, we had almost no idea what we’d do — we just planned to figure it out as we went.
Once we started, people flocked to the typewriters — mostly for the wonderful clacking sound.  And for some reason we began with haikus (probably because they are so short, and gave us a clear structure), on whatever topics people gave us.
Pretty soon a line formed at our table, and someone asked us, “Do you all do this at other events?”  We looked at each other for a nanosecond, and then said in unison, “Of course we do!”  Also that day, someone in line called out, “This is like a typewriter rodeo!”  The name stuck, and we registered the domain that night.
[Uma] And the book? How did that come to be?
[Sean] It’s pretty magical, how much complete strangers will share with us, and how much of a brief, intense connection we can have, writing them a poem.  Once those folks leave our poetry table, however, we generally never see them again.
But after we’d been doing events for a couple years, we’d gotten a following on social media, and some of our poems — and the stories behind them — had found us again, with people posting about them or emailing us.
We submitted a handful of these to a literary agent, who loved the idea, and then we reached out to more poem recipients, to try and collect more poems and stories.
Andrews McMeel (who I adore because they also publish The Far Side cartoon anthologies) agreed to publish the book, as not just a collection of poems, but even more so of the people and stories behind those poems.  It’s as much a human interest book as a poetry one.  And we are so excited about it.
[Uma] This has got to feel like doing a Tabata workout with words. How does quick thinking on the keyboard impact the rest of your writing? 
[Sean] I’ll be honest, I had to look up “Tabata workout” to see what it was, but yes, exactly!  It is definitely a rapid-fire mental workout, and sometimes a fingertips-tapping one too!
I think it helps the rest of my writing in two important ways.
First, it’s a great tool to fall back on, when I feel like I have writer’s block.  At the poetry table, there’s no such thing as writer’s block — we don’t have time.  There is literally someone standing there, waiting for you to write them a poem on the spot.  And there’s a line of other folks behind them, waiting for you to finish and get to them.  So there’s no time to worry about writer’s block — you just jump in, start typing, and trust in yourself.  When I feel stuck in my other writing, I try to draw on those same feelings, mentally put myself in that same situation, to keep going.
And that leads to the second, related aspect — writing confidence.  Often when I start a poem, I have no idea at all where it will go.  But I’ve learned to trust that whatever pops into my head, that is *always* the best place to start.  And that, somehow, some way, I’ll find a way to make it work by the end.  Sure, some poems “work” better than others, but that’s just life.  And if I tried to figure it out in advance, tried to plot out the “perfect” poem each time, I’d never get anywhere.  Also kinda like life.
[Uma] And finally, what does using a typewriter add to the whole process?
[Sean] First off, there’s the lovely sound, which often draws people to our table.
But also, there’s the inability to delete your mistakes.  Our typewriters are all manual ones, with no correcting ribbon or anything like that.  So, you type “hope” where you meant “hype,” you are stuck with that wonderful accident.  And sure, you could cross it out, but it’s still there.  Or you can go with the unplanned gift of “hope,” take the poem in a new direction.  (That is, if you even realize the mistake at the time…)  I find that both terrifying and freeing — with our typewriters, there’s no way to avoid mistakes, but that means you don’t try as hard to be perfect.  Also there’s literally nowhere to hide with a typewriter — the poem recipient sees the letters, the moment I type them.
I think all of that, along with handing the recipient a physical copy of the poem, right there on the spot, creates this wonderful brief bit of connection between the two of us — connection that often seems so lacking in our social media, screen-oriented world.
[Uma] Thank you, Sean Petrie. Here’s to happiness and accidents and combinations thereof.