By Danelle Jishie, A Student’s Journey Intern with the WOW Center, Tucson, AZ
Photo by Cody Hammer
Traci Sorell brings visibility to the lives of contemporary Native Americans through the characters she writes. Sorell’s most recent book Powwow Day (Charlesbridge Publishing, 2022), is filled with family, community, and the healing powers of Powwow dancing. Vivid illustrations by Madelyn Goodnight also bring life to the story Sorell cultivates themes such as illness, uncertainty and hope. In Powwow Day, the character River, recovering from an unknown illness goes to the local powwow with her family. Although limited by her recovery, River finds strength from her family and community as the songs and the drums lift her spirits. Readers who pick up this book can experience the colorful world of a powwow.
Sorell’s Books and Background
As one of the Native American voices in children literature, Sorell writes for a variety of age levels from young readers to middle grades. Titles for young readers include At the Mountain’s Base (Kokila, 2019), and We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga (Charlesbridge, 2018). And for older readers Classified: The Secret Career of Mary Golda Ross, Cherokee Aerospace Engineer (Millbrook Press, 2021). Lastly, in collaboration with her dear friend Charlene Willing McManis, Indian No More (Tu Books, 2019) targets the middle grade audience.
Sorell’s books center around Native American characters and culture, inspired by her own background as a Cherokee citizen. Before authoring books for young readers, Sorell ventured into the legal world to help Native Nations and their peoples. Since then, she has entered the literary world to challenge the stereotypical writings of one-dimensional Native characters. Sorell notes regarding her writing of Native American characters that you must be, “intentional with your writing.”
The shift in the realm of children’s literature surrounding own voices welcomes the characters in Sorell’s book as fully constructed people existing simply as human beings. Unlike the “Pan-Indian” creations of yesterday, books such as We Are Still Here!: Native American Truths Everyone Should Know (Charlesbridge Publishing, 2021) feature Native characters who come from a difficult background and acknowledge the trauma of the past while being proud people within the present.
While structuring her writing, Sorell recognizes the perfect book stays unattainable. However, spending time to thoroughly research helps create a book with purpose. Writing fully developed characters entails “knowing who is in the story and is their whole humanity showing?” Straying away from characters who are shells of people and creating versatile ones instead provides children a place of belonging within the story. Accurate representation of Native Americans comes into play when children of all backgrounds can pick up a book and relate to the characters despite their differences. Younger generation’s exposure to books with better representation of Native Americans will create a new era in which the image of the stereotypical “Indian” disappears and is replaced with Native representations with full humanity. when drafting her stories, Sorell signifies that Native Americans do not exist solely in the past state of the settler era but are present in modern day society.
Leaning on her Cherokee lens, Sorell works alongside others to articulate her vision. She notes that publishing requires more than the author, but rather a team of people working together to create the work of art. Consulting with others to close the gap for missing information or to help visualize her words, Sorell understands that in her line of work, she alone cannot create a book with only one person. Sorell says writing as a children’s author comes with acknowledgement of a collaborative approach as collaborating with an illustrator requires, “leaving gaps open to write their own story through the art.”
Making Classroom Connections
Giving attention to contemporary Native Americans, Sorell enjoys sharing her books within the classroom environment observing that, “we disappear from the school curriculum past the settler era.” Showing children that Native Americans continued to live past colonialism, Sorell remains steadfast in her mission to depict Native communities and their people as thriving in the present.
When visiting schools, Sorell often leaves the reader interaction up to the children by using an informal approach open to going where the children take it unless given a formal request ahead of time to present on a specific topic. Socializing animatedly with younger children and taking cues from older children, Sorell interacts with a wide range of young people during her visits. Focusing on the Native lens in children’s literature, Sorell invests herself by welcoming questions and being honest in her answers.
Forthcoming by Sorell
Always planning for future books, usually with several drafts in the works, Sorell’s upcoming books have exciting premises. First, Sorell contributed to She Persisted Wilma Mankiller, a biography of the first female Principle Chief of the Cherokee Nation, to the chapter book series from Chelsea Clinton and Alexandra Boiger (Philomel Books, 2022). Also, Sorell wrote, a nonfiction middle grade book titled, Contenders: Two Native Baseball Players, One World Series to be released next year (Kokila, 2023). Another new fiction for middle grades is the novel Mascot, co-authored with Charles Waters also due out next year (Charlesbridge, 2023). Two other books coming soon are two fiction picture books: Being Home (Kokila, 2023) and Clack, Clack! Smack! A Cherokee Stickball Story (Charlesbridge, Summer 2024).
Lastly, a highly-anticipated and emotional read will be the nonfiction middle grade book, Riding the Trail: Cherokees Remember the Removal, co-authored with Will Chavez (Charlesbridge, Spring 2025). Sorell says, “I wanted to write about the trail of tears differently.” Through the book, she shares how modern-day Cherokee youth learn about Cherokee Removal by retracing their ancestors’ path on bikes. Looking at the Trail of Tears through a new lens, the book sheds light on the different facets of Cherokee history, including moving into Osage homelands and arriving to empty plots of land. The book will focus on the trail through the Cherokee youths bike journey and interweave history with an exceptional story through a new perspective.
Authors’ Corner is a periodic profile featured on our blog where authors discuss their writing process and the importance of school visits. Worlds of Words frequently hosts these authors for events in the collection. To find out when we are hosting an author, check out our events page. Journey through Worlds of Words during our open reading hours: Monday-Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.