Podcast: Traci Sorell, Andrea Page, and Monique Gray Smith

Nov 2, 2023 | Essential Conversations, Native Creatives, Podcasts, The Highlights Foundation Experience

What You’ll Find In this Podcast

Traci Sorell, Andrea Page, and Monique Gray Smith joined George Brown to discuss the In-Community Retreat for Native writers and illustrators, the new Native Creatives cabin, scholarship opportunities for Native writers, and their writing processes.

Podcast Highlights

Monique Gray Smith on her writing process:

My process is really feeling more like I am of service to the story or of service to the characters to share their stories and to share their teachings and all the books. I mean, they [books] all have this weaving in them, that love is medicine, that teaching, that love is medicine in some way. So I feel like that’s part of my contribution to readers is to remind them that to love ourselves, to love each other, to love the land, to love all living beings, and then in that reciprocity, we get taken care of.

Andrea Page’s thoughts on the importance of research and authenticity:

You have to make sure that you’re thinking about the audience, those young people, because there’s such a responsibility on our shoulders to be authentic and connect with them, and we’ve talked about this before, but there are so many different Native cultures and how do you connect with each different one because you know things; some things are the same in terms of values, but you know the cultures and traditions may be a little bit different or a lot different.

Traci Sorell discussing the Native Creatives Scholarship:

It’s even more important now to have the Native Creatives scholarship right where the encouraging of people to come and take that time for rest, to have the openness to stories, to complete a deadline, you know, whatever it is that someone needs, there is that space where we talk about it–because all of us get away to write or to create..the Native Creatives scholarship is an important part of saying to artists, illustrators, writers, authors: come, be nourished, let us take care of those everyday details so you can be renewed; you can create.

Andrea Page and Traci Sorell on the Native Creatives In-Community experience:

This group that’s here is a mixture of established authors like Traci and Monique, to people that are beginning their journey on writing for children. You know, maybe they’ve been writing in a different area, but now they’re here and they’re comfortable sitting at meals or whenever to ask those questions. How do we do this or, what’s your process, or things like that. So it’s a mixture of people that are coming.

We’re all in the circle together and opening our hands to bring others in.

Full Transcript

George: Hi listeners, this is George Brown at the Highlights Foundation. Here’s another episode of the HF Gather podcast. This one’s a great chat with Monique Gray Smith, Traci Sorell, and Andrea Page, who are here for the native creatives retreat in late September of 2023, I hope you enjoy this session as much as I did. Welcome to the Highlights Foundation gather podcast, where our mission is to positively impact children by amplifying the voices of storytellers and inform, educate and inspire children to become their best selves. Today’s guests in cabin four are Andrea Page, Monique Gray Smith, and Traci Sorell welcome. 

Guests: Thank you. Thank you for having us. 

George: So I’m hoping we’ll just have a little free flowing conversation. We’ll talk a little bit about why you’re here this specific time and a little bit about some of your other experiences with the Highlights Foundation and then certainly I want to learn a little bit about your writing, your writing life and kind of how writing fits into all of those parts of your life so let’s start in. We’re here for the native creatives in community retreat. And Traci, you’re the one who really helped get this going and get it started. We tried it a number of years ago and we didn’t quite have the right momentum before the pandemic and then you, I don’t know whether it was last year, even two years ago when you started talking about doing an in community retreat with native creatives, but I’d love to hear just a little bit about your impressions. 

Traci: Well, you know, when I think back to when I originally had proposed this and we had talked about it, we didn’t have the critical mass that we do now, right? So many others have brought their stories into the world of children’s and teens literature that. I don’t know that it would have been done as dynamic, right, so things happen for a reason we’ve had during the pandemic. You know, time for more people to get their stories out into the world, things to come into the marketplace for schools, libraries, families to have more amplified voices across a variety of native nations. And that’s exciting so I feel like. Seeing all the people that we have. This weekend here is a direct result of that waiting you know and being able to be here with everyone in such a nurturing environment, is it just it makes me very emotional because when I first came here in 2017 as a scholarship recipient to go to the novel in verse workshop I thought, wow, this is so cool that everyone’s gathered here to talk about, you know, this format and how to write in this format for young people. And I knew that I liked it, but I didn’t know much about it, you know, and this weekend, there’s no workshops. You know, there’s no content that’s being shared. It’s a collaborative sharing. And really, letting people have time to do what they need to do, whether that’s work on something, meet with the critique group, spend time resting, right, renewing themselves to be creative as they depart here. And that’s a huge part of what Highlights is to me, because it’s been all of those things I’ve come for workshops I’ve come to rest, you know, I’ve come to be in community and so I’m just delighted to be here. It really just makes me very, very happy. Very, very happy. Yeah. 

George: I’m so glad to hear that. I love because you have been a part of the Highlight Foundation for so long. You’ve seen both as a as a student, as a teacher, done online stuff for us. You’ve done different variations of in person now. And Monique, this is your first visit with us. I’m curious, your kind of first impressions. 

Monique: Ah, I’m kind of lost for words because I’m just so loving my time here, and as soon as we pulled in, well, as soon as actually Denise picked me up at the airport I was like. OK, this is going to rock. Because she’s just this dynamo and she was just so welcoming and shared stories. So by the time we got here, I felt like I was already in that story telling place of being kind of that memory, that the stories we share are gifts, and they help each other help each of us understand who we are in the world. And there’s something very special about this land. That for me, almost instantly, in the first night, I’m like I didn’t bring paper and pen with me for the first night and I was like, I got to find paper and pen right away like the ideas are coming like so it has been, I’ve been able to finish up a project that I’m going to go back and review one more time and then hit the send button so it feels like I’m very grateful for the invite Traci. A couple of years ago now to be here and to see friends again, like Andrea and to meet new people and this is a very special place. Yeah, I see. Now why because I come from Victoria, Canada. This is a long ways away, but whenever I say I’m going to Highlights to other writers or my agent, they’re like, wow, lucky you. And now I understand the lucky you. I feel very blessed to be here. 

George: And Andrea Page, you’ve been with us a couple of different ways and times. Tell us a little bit about that 

Andrea: I am, I started as a student, I think in 2018 and had a wonderful mentor when I was here for that workshop, Emma Otheguy and over the years. Now, in a critique group with her, which is pretty cool, I had a chance to do some presentations. And Alison Green Meyers saw some of the recordings that I did and invited me to be a teacher here, which fills an empty space. Since I retired from teaching, so that’s that was wonderful invitation, but it also came at a time when I was pretty low in my confidence of a as a writer, things had gone in the dumpster, basically at the time. So all of you have been really encouraging and supportive of my writing journey, and it’s helped me grow in confidence. Enough now that I’ve grown in my craft a lot and now I got an agent in the last month. So it’s pretty exciting and I do credit Highlights a lot for helping me get there this time. 

George: And yourself for doing the work, right? 

Andrea: Well, it’s hard work. 

George: I think, but you touched on two of the key pieces, right, craft and confidence like you have to develop enough confidence in yourself as a writer and there are some basics of craft that are helpful in getting along that journey. 

Andrea: And just, you know, Traci called last year about dates and everything for this intensive here because I we, during the pandemic a whole bunch of native people, writers and illustrators would be online, and those native intensives and we knew each other. But you didn’t meet each other in person, so I stayed an extra day last year at one of the workshops to meet Traci in person and it was just such a blessing to be able to do that here. But now to be here with so many people familiar faces, it’s about half and half and a bunch of new faces. And it’s just a different feeling being with an all native and intensive, so very grateful. 


This has never happened to me. I’ve never been. You know, on a campus where we have the whole campus and it’s just us, you know, and everyone can just do what they want to do. You know, it’s, there’s is a lot of freedom I feel this weekend, you know, because in so many times I was moving through spaces where that was just not allowed, you know, and like here, you know, we can say what we need to say. We can ask the questions. We can just sit in quiet reflection and there’s no one going What are you doing? Or I need to know more about this. It’s like what? None of that it’s.. 

George: Being you. 

Traci: It is, yes. Everyone can just be themselves. You know, there’s no expectations on anyone. 

Monique: So and I love that we’re gathering today when we’re recording it September 30th, which in Canada is known as the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation and becoming more familiar in the United States also for this day of honoring survivors and the intergenerational survivors of residential schools and boarding schools and I was thinking when you were talking about craft and you, I was thinking what a gift it is to be amongst 20 storytellers on this day that no matter what we’re creating, it’s like. Yeah, it makes me teary. Also, it’s like, wow here, what a gift it is to be here on this day and the sun’s peeking through and yeah, feel special to all be together. 

George: We’ll talk a little bit about your writing, so let’s see Monique, I want to start with you. I see up on our bookshelves, there was a board book. There was a picture book. And then there was braiding sweet grass retold for a young adult audience. So that’s, that’s a range. So tell me a little bit about your writing and what you like to write, how you like to write. 

Monique: I like to write whatever the gift comes, so I was sharing that last night that I that’s how I feel creativity comes. So I also have adult novels and so they just I feel like they come as a gift and I never really know if they’re going to initially be a children’s, board book ,or an adult novel or and once that gift comes, I just clear my calendar and as much as I can and write because I wish that I had the discipline to write 2 hours every day. I don’t, I get up and I write initially in the morning for 5-7 minutes. But my style is more when the gift comes, I create space and then I just literally dive in. I feel more like a conduit than the actual storyteller. Sometimes a character will. I’ll be typing away and something will come from a character, and I was like, I did not see that coming. So it’s like they navigate this story. So that’s more my process is really feeling more like I am of service to the story or of service to the characters to share their stories and to share their teachings and all the books. There’s ten books now which is wild to me because I’ve my first book came out in 2013. I mean, they all have this weaving in them, that love is medicine, that teaching, that love is medicine in some way. So I feel like that’s part of my contribution to readers is to remind them that to love ourselves, to love each other, to love the land, to love all living beings, and then in that reciprocity, we get taken care of. So that’s my process. 

George: So I love the idea of waiting for the story to come through you, but you’re also doing work to get there, right? It sounds like you you’re trying at least to do something every day or regularly. And I bet it’s not always there the story, but the writing is happening to get you there? 

Monique: Yeah, for sure. And the paying attention to the ideas that might come yeah. Which means I have to put my phone down a lot and I’ll go on Instagram or whatever social media. But to be present for the ideas for me to notice the ideas. 

Traci: Yeah. Well, like you mentioned too, I know that might mean getting up and going for a walk, you know, outside in the woods or whatever so that you can hear, right? What’s being said? We’re taking that time to rest and having the dream, you know. That you’re not constantly plugged in, yeah. And I think that is a very conscious way of practice in terms of receiving the gifts you know being able to write because so much of. 

Andrea: MMmm. 

Traci: I feel like our daily lives is what’s in his task. What’s the next task? Well, I mean, if you stay in that place. You don’t get to hear those things, and you don’t get to receive those gifts. So yeah, when you were talking about that last night I was like, yes, exactly. Now and so it’s it kind of goes back to the book that I read in January: Rest is Resistance, I believe, by Trisha Hershey and I was like, yes, that has got to be my mantra of being forward that definitely setting those boundaries in terms of saying this is this is where I’m putting my time. This is where I’m, you know, creating that just space to be to here. 

George: Creating that so Moni, the one thing. I don’t know anything about how to how to how to retell what would you what did you do to braiding sweetgrass like? How is that a different process from creating? 

Monique: I don’t know how I did it with the gift of many ancestors helping me and that is honestly I I would say that that was every morning I would start in ceremony and say please use me in the best way possible to be of service so that the words and the messages and the teachings in this book leave their way into young hearts and hearts of the not so young. And then at the end I would close with because I find sometimes if you start with ceremony and then you work away and then when you leave the desk, the story doesn’t leave. The story comes with you and so you never kind of. So sometimes I’d have to close so that I could be present with my children or my family, it was a process of really choosing for me what resonated. In that story that cause me to pause and reflect on how am I contributing? How am I using the gifts and what do I need to know from the land and the water and all living beings to be the best human I can be at this time on the planet and then with my work with youth over the years. Having that in my mind working with a program called Roots of Empathy for years. Understanding like what is the social, emotional learning pieces that we need to pull out and what is the history pieces that we need to pull out a little bit more because. While we’ve been on a journey in Canada, this is still the first generation in school who’s learning about the truth. And so there had to be ways in this beautiful book by Doctor Robert Welcomer to bring that truth forward in a way that educators could have conversations around in the classrooms, but also that families could have visits at the dinner. Table because what’s also happening is children and young people are coming home to talk about the truth and. How is it going that didn’t happen? What do you mean that? Happened so also having ways to have those conversations for the children and young people with the adults in their lives because they’re at usually educating them. So I had big stickies. I had all kinds of things. I’m very visual. I had lots of stickies, and my family was hugely supportive. But I went to a place called Hollyhock, which is bit closer to where I live. Similar here to Highlights for a week and they just took care of me while I had that first week to just really immerse myself. And what will we keep? What will we add and what will we leave? I couldn’t say cut. I would say, what will we leave for when the readers read the original manuscript and there’s a whole new chapter at the beginning? 

George: Yeah, that sounds a lot more in depth than editing for word count and content, right? 

Monique: Ohh yeah, no it it’s it’s a similar book, but it’s a new book. Yeah, yeah. 

Traci: Yeah, some of the concepts are there. But yeah, I mean, you know, because the originals had 400 some pages. 

George: Thank you. Thanks for sharing. 

Andrea: Thank you. 

Traci: Right, and you know the why edition has illustrations in it, you know, it’s got discussion questions like it’s just a really great study for the for the audience, right of like, how do I take this this larger book and bring it to where they’re at, you know, because if you’ve read the original. Doctor Welcomer does a fantastic job of really weaving in, you know, her role as a mother and how that relates to all these things, which is not where you know, someone reading the younger edition is going to be. And so you know Monique was the perfect is the perfect person to do that, given her background, given what she can hold simultaneously and put all those things together, so it’s just beautiful. And then Nicole, Nightheart’s illustrations inside. I was like, wow, this is a powerhouse of a book. 

Monique: Probably the greatest project of love that I’ve worked on so far. 

George: I love that. So I had just snapped a screenshot of it just so I would remember when I was up there and I got a text from my wife like 10 minutes later because she saw it show up in our photo feed and she said can you buy me a copy of that? I need it for my classroom, so she’s teaching  

Guests: Oh, nice. Awesome. Yeah, well, yes. 

George: High school agriculture, right. And so I was like, what do you do? This just be perfect with the classroom. So yes, it’s just that quickly she saw that you talk about the reader and connecting with the reader and getting them. Andrea, we were talking earlier and you were talking about the importance of the reader. And thinking about in your writing, how you get to the reader. 

Andrea: So I in the beginning I was writing mostly nonfiction. I’m branching out a little bit more to fiction, but with nonfiction, you know, you have to make sure your research is there. You have to make sure that you’re thinking about the audience, those young people, because there’s such a responsibility on our shoulders to be authentic and connect with them, and we’ve talked about this before, but there are so many different native cultures and how do you connect with each different one because you know things. Some things are the same in terms of values, but you know the cultures and traditions may be a little bit different or a lot different. So that was a big weight on my shoulders when I was trying to write my book was how am I going to tell this in a way that connects with the young reader. I tend to write more about veterans and elders. A lot of biographies and things like that. But now I’m starting to move into, as I’ve been listening to my mom, I talk to my mom every morning and every once in a while, a memory will flicker and I have my notebook right next to the phone now whenever I am because I just quick write down what she remembers and so some of those stories are what are coming next. So fictionalized, of course, because I don’t have all the details, but emotional pieces and hopefully connecting to more family values, so it’s just kind of evolving. But yeah, I feel the responsibility of the child reader on my shoulders when I write, I want to get it right. 

George: You talked about the emotional piece, right, Traci, you were talking about the writing is hard if you want it to be good? 

Traci: It requires a vulnerability. You know, I mean, I’m sure you’ve drawn that from your teaching career of, like, putting yourself out there to connect with the students and have them connect with each other and create that community in the classroom. You have to create the community with the book. You know, I mean, ultimately, when our books go out in the world. They’re not ours anymore, right? I mean, we we’ve created with this whole team to put this out in the world, but then ultimately everyone else has their own experience with that, and there’s vulnerability in that right to take, as you know, Monique says, receive the gifts and then say, OK. I’m going to, you know, put this out here and people think it’s just, you know, a reflection of you or whatever. And it’s like, oh, there’s generations that are represented, you know, in in this story. It’s absolutely, you know, just me or the other people that are on this team right here right now, there’s, there’s so many generations to all of these stories and it is a huge responsibility so when you said that I. was like yes. 

Andrea: We had talked before and I loved what you said about how the Cherokee went in the room. I don’t know if you feel comfortable explaining that, but that really made it ,again, I’m a visual person too, so when she explained it that way, I was like, oh my gosh, this is, the bulk of why you write. 

Traci: Well, you know, because it is a different way of understanding the world, right? And I think that’s what so much of I feel like I was missing when I first started with children’s literature is like, OK, but what if we have a different way of seeing the world here? Like, I don’t see that in these books and for you know church people our belief is that you know everyone that’s been here prior to you. You know, all that are here with you and all that are to come in essence. You know, we’re all in that same room together. We’re all in that same space and so distinctions between time or place, like they don’t exist as they’ve been defined in like a mainstream settler colonial type society. Right? And it gives you a different way of thinking about the world. You know, when you hold all of those things simultaneously, you know, you don’t. There’s often a tendency, and I I’m sure it’s the same in candidates like we just kind of forget the history. You know, we just, you know, that was then we we’ve moved on you a few years, right. We moved 50 years and we just, Oh, all of that is still with us. It’s all still right here, you know, and everything that is to come is all still right here, right. The things we’re doing now impact everything that’s coming. So that type of mentality or mindset, I would like to see more of, you know. For our young people, all of our young people, you know, but certainly, you know, our own children and then and their peers to have that represented that they’re there are different ways of thinking about things that and believing and walking in the world and being that should be known. 

Andrea: I love a lot of the new literature that’s coming out, I write educator guides. So I get to see some of the books before they actually make it out into the published world. But I love seeing a lot of the picture books now have, like, an ancestor talk about it. Our we walk with our ancestors and the pictures women and these beautiful pictures of all the ancestors behind the protagonist in the story. And then we’re also thinking about the future. So I feel that a lot too, like I think about my grandparents a lot and what they went through and my mom and then I’m thinking about my kids and my grandkids in the future. That’s a lot of weight and responsibility. But it’s, but it’s all good. You know, that really provides that focus on what we’re doing is really important. 

Monique: And I think, you know, yesterday you were at or on Thursday you were telling about this idea you have for a story, and it might just be a story about a little animal. But there’s all these stories about colonization and impact that weave into that story. When we’re able to unpack it, or when the educator is able to unpack it in the classroom, and I think that’s part of the gift of yours, ways of telling stories and storytelling is that it allows us to understand history. Through animals or through other ways of being that so that the children never make the same decisions that were made and not only years ago, but are still being made. 

Traci: And that they know that there are other decisions right. There are other choices that could be made. It’s like you don’t have to keep doing the same you know? There are other ways of being in relation with each other. For sure. 

George: When Monique you talked a little bit about, you’ve already had a moment that you you’ve you got to a spot where you’re almost ready to press submit. So you’ve gotten something done here. Andrea, you talked about trying to find a mentor text. What are you working on this weekend or thinking about in some way? 

Andrea: Well, last summer in July, when I was here teaching I wanted to focus on, you know, give tools on how to research for because it was a craft workshop and so my focus was on research and I just do research, I don’t so I wanted to just slow myself down, pull out the steps. So I was trying to think, you know, what do I have on my phone? That’s something I didn’t even touch yet, and I found this one picture. And so I started with that picture and then I kind of mapped out what I what I did to research it and I wasn’t really expecting to I didn’t, I didn’t pick the picture intending to actually come out with a manuscript after the end, but the people that were in the audience after my presentation here all said, you have to write that book. So I’m like, oh my gosh, so, and then it’s just been kind of marinating and I’ve been collecting the research and on the animal. And then this other book came out, and now Traci’s giving me another mentor text to look at and with the format it’s just different. So it would be like informational text but with like this fictionalized kind of side characters in there. And it was how I was picturing if I were to write this book and I opened up, you know, a newer book. Now and I was blown away because I’m like, oh my gosh, this is the format that I was like picturing in my mind. So now it’s just a matter of sitting down at the desk and doing it. So I’m hoping to have a very bad rough draft before I leave on Tuesday. 

George: That under the bucket of where do ideas come from it sounds like it started with a photo and just kind of it’s rolled into. 

Andrea: And that’s how my book came to. We didn’t know anything about my great uncle and his service in the war, and one of my mother’s cousins mailed a newspaper article to her. I happened to be there that morning at the kitchen table and she pulls out the newspaper article and there was a picture in there. And she said right away she goes, that’s uncle Johnny. And then this whole article was about him being a code talker in World War 2 and I didn’t know about code talkers. Then at all that was in 1994, Internet wasn’t around, so I went to the library. I couldn’t find anything. And so that’s how that all started. And that was, not to discourage anybody, but that was 20 years before the book got published. After that, but yeah, so a picture is. 

George: Or we could encourage people to say an idea sometimes takes 20 years to get through life and all it takes to get it into the room. 

Monique: Yeah 

Andrea: Yeah. Yeah, cause I was teaching full time and my husband and I were raising 4 kids. And, you know, dogs and cats and whatever, life was full. 

George: Yeah, it’s back to that. How do you fit? Where does writing fit? And it doesn’t always. It’s not always the thing that can happen every day. So Traci are you able to do any work while you’re here? Are you? I can imagine you’re just having so much fun thinking about this retreat and planning and all the work that goes into it. 

Traci: Yeah, just before I came working on a co-authored book and my co-author sent their revisions back to me to look at and my hope is that before I leave, I will have that to the editor because I want it out of my plate. I want to, you know, and I don’t play tennis, but I always think about it. You know, I want to be able to hit it back over the net and say do not return for a couple of weeks. 

George: It’s your turn. 

Traci: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. So, so that is, you know, I’m not looking at trying to write something new, but just get something that’s in process off of my plate for a while, yeah. 

George: To the next step. So this, on the whole co-authoring, I know you just released mascot with Charles Waters, right? And so this isn’t your first Co co-author project that you’re working on now. You’ve done this. What was it like or how is it different? Are you each writing something and sharing back and forth and how how’s that process? 

Traci: Yeah, couple times. Well, the very first book that I in essence, sort of co-authored was Indian no more with Charlene William McManus, who was a dear friend and citizen of the Grand Ron’s tribe out in Oregon, who’s cancer came back. And so she asked me to complete the edits in the editorial letter that her editor had given her and in that process I had to add some chapters and delete some worked closely with her tribe so they became another, you know, definitely author. I felt like with us to just ensure that they had an accurate manuscript and so it’s an important part of her legacy. You know, it’s a historical fiction book, but it reflects her experiences and the experiences of others from her tribe who were relocated, you know, after the tribe, the federal government terminated its tribe. So that was the 1st experience I had, which was very intense. Yeah. And at the same time some of the you know as many was talking about like some of the most fulfilling work I’ve done because I knew the importance of getting that story in the world for her legacy, but also for all of our young people to understand what happened during that time of of history over, you know, 70% of our population lives outside of their tribal lands. It was absolutely calculated. National policy to have that happen, you know, during that time. Uh, Charles. I met here at Highlights. That novel in verse workshop, and we had talked about working out something together, which of course, since we were both at that point, writing picture books I thought would be a picture book. And when he contacted me two years later and said I have an idea for a novel in verse mascot, I was like, do you know what you’re getting into Charles? There’s really strong thoughts about this? And as we talked about it, you know it’s like, but young people don’t really know all the different viewpoints on that because the adults are always framing the conversation the adults have introduced the mascots into their K12 experience right. And So what if they’re having to have a dialogue amongst themselves about that, you know what, what does that look like? And we need knew we needed to have a very diverse cross section of people to share that young people to, to bring that issue forward and so we had to decide on number of characters. You know, we had fewer and then we added more again just to ensure that that variety of perspectives and we took turns, you know, drafting things and then going over each other’s poems. And so it really is an amalgamation now you know of us going through it and our editor, Karen Boss, who’s here this weekend, just phenomenal, provided so much care. And the whole team at Charlesbridge made the book making process. And like I said, working together, phenomenal. And they’re doing a fantastic job with the roll out of that into the world. So it’s been wonderful. And not the sorrow that accompanied, you know Indian no more. So that that part has been healing in many ways, you know, and the book that I’m here right now trying to get back to another book with Karen is a book that’s been very hard for me to write. And it’s about right on the trail Cherokees remember the removal. So young people who retrace the northern route, there’s several routes that Cherokee people were forcibly removed from our homelands to what is now Oklahoma, then Indian territory, where they a new reservation, had been created for us and just having to look at what my own, you know, great, great, great grandparents experienced as teenagers, you know. And then they met and married in in Indian Territory, which is obviously why I’m here today, but looking at what all took place there, you know? And seeing the beauty of that land and that place and knowing everyone was taken from them. I could not write. I mean, I came to Highlights twice last summer purposely to write on this manuscript I wrote. Neither time that I was here I just needed to rest. And going back this summer and being in the homelands and kind of working through all of that again after I had followed the riders in 2021. Because the manuscript was due in, in early 2022 allowed me then to be free, to write that. And so when Monique says, sometimes you have to clear the calendar. I have written so much in August and September this year, you know, because I could not write previously. And it may have been some fear. You know, it may have just been having myself be blocked, but I just could not fathom, like, doing more than I would get a couple paragraphs. Right, so. I had about four pages. I was like this is not going to work, you know my co-authors, you know, been the coordinator of the ride. Three years, he went on the original ride in 1984, so he had all of his stuff done. And just very patient with me, our editor’s very patient. And so that’s why I mean about the vulnerability, there’s a vulnerability of putting it on the page. And having that sense of responsibility, like you were talking about, Andrea, of just going OK, I have all of these people with me, I have all of this. That has happened to us, right? And you want to help young people understand. The enormity of what happened and the trauma and that we don’t want to inflict this on anyone else and at the same time, the hope and the joy that is among our young people, because it’s a leadership training program. That’s why the tribe does this is that we have then people who will help you know. Keep our communities growing right and be strong in the future and provide that leadership and that love and that support. So it’s important to have these stories in the world, but there’s no way I could do it without a place like Highlights without Monique, Andrea, other people that are here, who really, you know, my family, all the people in my community back home. That really provide that support that allow that vulnerability. You know, there’s work that I’ve done previously in advocacy areas and stuff. Nothing has ever required the amount of openness and vulnerability that the creative life has required of me, and I could not do it without. The prayers and support and cooperation of others. You know it just would not happen. There are other things in other venues. I feel like you may be able to accomplish by yourself on some level, and then you’ve got to work together. But here, from me in this life. It’s from the very beginning of the process, so it’s been a transformative life for me to engage in the creative life. 

George: That’s the amazing thing about being a storyteller, is that you’re willing to go through that process because you talked about for the reader you’re not necessarily wanting to share all of the emotional work that you had to go through. You want that story just to resonate and it. 

Traci: And to be whatever it’s going to be for them, right, you know, I mean that they have their own experience with it and you’re not dictating to them what that will be. But it’s a hell of a process to get there. 

Andrea: You know, Highlights, here is very nourishing to the creative process, as we’ve been talking about, but one of the things that I was thinking about when I was teaching, because I taught English in the last I don’t know, 18 years of my careers, whatever it was. But one of the things that I was always trying to let the kids know is you can’t force your emotions, your stories, whatever. But this is a time where when you’re rest. Seeing and you’re marinating those ideas. It takes the you know, time to get it all seasoned and get it, get it on the page. And so the rest and the relaxation in a place like Highlights is just like what you were saying. Be open to whatever was coming your way with your ideas. So I find that too like when I get here and all of a sudden like I’m all these things are like, but I’m trying to write things down as fast as I can and catch whatever I can, but then there’s resting. And for me, that’s like also the research stage. Like, I’m getting these ideas. And it’s marinating, but I have to get something else. I’m missing something and then then it all comes together and starts going on the page. But. It just takes some time and it’s OK. 

George: So then how? Do you, how do you take that home with you? Right. Like that was joke to people. You need to buy a T-shirt. So when you need that sensation you can put it on. But like, what is that that as a creative you can take home with you to be able to say today’s my retreat time at home or my even if it’s only 30 minutes. But how do you get that that piece? Because it’s hard around. day-to-day life to get those things. 

Andrea: I sometimes have to go somewhere else to write different environments. I mean, coffee shop people do. Maybe it’s the smell of coffee. I don’t know, favored coffee. By like going we go to the Adirondacks as a family and I love going there because it’s very similar to here. It’s nice and quiet. You’re surrounded by.  

George: We’ve been getting away somewhere different. This has been great. I told you we were only going to talk for 30 minutes. We’re a bit over that, but it’s been such a lovely conversation. I do want to make sure we just talk about the native creatives cabin and the scholarship I think, which is really important. And so we had a nice kind of celebration yesterday introducing everyone to it. Do you want Traci, You, you were the whole inspiration behind the getting that rolling, do you want to talk about that? 

Traci: Well, you know, when I come previously one of the times, I stayed in the Floyd Cooper cabin and I was like this is so cool because UM, Floyd, you know, is an amazing Muskogee Creek African American illustrator and author- Illustrator who faculty here many times and just a mentor to many, you know beyond Highlights. And I thought, you know this place does mentor it does you know there are people that come and really share their gifts around craft and share their gifts around the business? And wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was a cabin where we were celebrating all these voices that are contributing in text and in visual art stories from various native nations. So. Last summer, when I came and I stayed in in Cabin 21 and I saw the screened in porch and just that it looks you know right there that the tree line. I thought this is the cabin. Like we should just fill it full of all this art from, you know, people who are created Illustrations and cover art for native books and have it full of all the books that are being created that once someone walks in here they go, Oh my gosh, I had no idea, I know, hopefully that’s not the case, you know, moving forward that you know, all these books are here, and I’m grateful for your willingness to transform the place you know. So I arrive Wednesday and there’s new paint there’s the floor, you know, the carpets gone. It’s got hardwoods. And the bookshelves are full. You know, I’ve written all these publishers said please send us your books. We’ve got the framed prints on the wall and so exciting because you know whether we’re here as a group for retreat people come on their own for a personal retreat or with their critique group, or someone comes back for a craft workshop. This is a space that says you are, you know, we’re on  right. We are on the homelands of the Lenape, the Delaware people. Here and this is a space, you know that says yes, we are also making contributions to what this retreat center about, which is sharing stories for young people. So I’m just ecstatic that we were, you were able to, you know, get that within a year’s time, you know, set up and able to share that with everyone, but certainly. You know, as we talked about like it’s a lot to be in this business, you know, and it’s a lot to financially be able to take advantage of resources and opportunities. Right and so. I think even more so after the pandemic, which is the way, travels expensive, everything in life is more expensive, so it’s even more important now to have the native creative scholarship right where the encouraging of people to come and take that time for rest, to have the openness to stories, to complete a deadline, you know, whatever it is that someone needs, there is that space where we talk about because all of us get away to, to write or to create. You know, sometimes I’m in the hotel 20 minutes north of my house for the weekend. I’m like, I don’t want anybody asking me for anything. 

George: That’s where you create this space benefit. 

Traci: It is. It is. The Hampton Inn, 20 miles north of me. I mean, I am so grateful for that place. Like, put me in a corner room. You know, away from the highway, please. Because that’s what I have to do, right? But there’s so much that this place offers, and the native creative scholarship is an important part of saying to, you know, artists, illustrators, writers, you know, authors come, be nourished, let us take care of those. Everyday details so you can be renewed you can create. Right. You can bring forward those stories. You can hear what’s happening. So my hope is that that only continues to grow and we have to have more bookshelves also in the cabin because of what is created here. I mean, I have two books. In the world. Because of Highlights, you know two of the are directly attributable here, and that’s powwow Day and mascot. When I was here for that novel In verse workshop that you’ve sponsored. You know you all sponsored me for I was actually working. on a picture by the script, but I sold it a month later, so you know, it was a good thing. 

George: Which is why we now have scholarships for personal retreats. Yeah. 

Traci: Exactly, yes, yes. And the and the native creative scholarship is flexible. They can, you know, someone can use it for a personal treat. They can use it for a workshop. If they can’t get. In person, which we know is not the reality for everyone because of, you know, their other work schedule caregiving duties. You know, for younger people, our elders, et cetera. It’s also can be used for online coursework. And so I love that flexibility. It’s like we, you know, you, you’ll be met where you need to be. You know what? What it, what works best. 

Andrea: For you and an important thing to add to is that. This group that’s here is a mixture of established well established authors like Traci and Monique, to people that are beginning their journey on writing for children. You know, maybe they’ve been writing in a different area, but now they’re here and they’re comfortable sitting at meals or whenever to ask those questions. How do we do this or what? What’s your process or things like that? So it’s a, it’s a mixture of people that are coming. It’s not just people who have projects that want to get finished. So it’s a really nice community. 

George: You might be going out on a limb here, but you’re talking about like the ancestors and the generations behind and ahead to come. And it’s the same in this writing community of you started as a scholarship student, and now you’re teaching, right? And so you’re mentoring. And same with you, Andrea. Like you go through those different phases of helping being helped and it’s a circle. 

Traci: Right, right. I mean, we constantly have to have our hands out right to, you know, hold on to others and bring along so that we’re all in the circle together and opening our hands to bring others in. 

George: And expanding the circle right? So the you were you saw the flood Cooper cottage which got you thinking about a native creatives cabin, which then has helped informed us and not working with some of our and community retreats. So that now thinking about how do we. 

Traci: Yes, yes, yes. 

George: Help showcase in some way underrepresented voices and so we now have an Asian American voices cottage that will get rolling next year and a Muslim voices and now a Jewish voices. And so like this, the voices keep coming. And so to create that and I think that idea of coming. 

Traci: Fun. Yeah, I love it. 

George: In to see a bookshelf. To say wow, look at these books that are being created for children today. 

Monique: I got teary in the cabin yesterday when I was looking at the bookshelf, bookshelves. Yeah. Yeah, I think that. 

Andrea: Was the most photographed, pic you know, spot, I mean, people were taking pictures of everything.B ut everybody closed the door to take a picture of that bookshelf with all it’s so cool to see it. 

Monique: It’s Impressive. It’s it’s, you know. 

Andrea: It’s all in one place. 

Traci: That’s not even all the books, right? Because I was sitting there like oh. I haven’t gotten this publishers books, you know, over here yet. So it’ll you know then we need. Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. 

Andrea: Yeah, yeah, yes. 

George: Right. If if it will grow and build. 

Andrea: But that’s all of this too, is a testament to you and Highlights too, because you’re opening your arms to all of us to be able to be here. 

Monique: And holding up the dignity of storytellers who haven’t been heard very often. 

George: Yes, thank you. 

Andrea: Grateful and generous. 

George: It’s a great, it’s a great place and a great organization and to continue to think about and focus on that mission that you know we share with Highlights the company, right that idea that children are the world’s most important people and Highlights is doing that through the content they’re putting into the hands of kids. And the Highlights Foundation was created to nurture the storytellers who are thinking about how that content gets to kids. So it’s fun to have both. You see the content piece, but also the nurturing of the storytellers doing that. This has been great. Thank you I think. We could probably go on another thing, but. I imagine you might get back to your cabins and do some creative writing. Thank you, Andrea Page, Monique Gray Smith, Traci Sorell, for being with us in community at the Highlights Foundation Retreat Center. Enjoy the rest of your day. 

Guests: Thank you. 

Monique: Thanks you too. 

Thank you to our faculty for this Guest Post!

Learn More About the Authors

Our Mission in Action

Share Your Story, Inspire a Child
Equity & Inclusion in Kidlit
Partners & Sponsors

The Highlights Foundation positively impacts children by amplifying the voices of storytellers who inform, educate, and inspire children to become their best selves.  Learn more about our impact.