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Five questions for Traci Sorell and Frané Lessac

We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga by Traci Sorell, illustrated by Frané Lessac (Charlesbridge, 5–8 years), is a lushly illustrated, through-the-seasons look at a contemporary Cherokee community’s daily life, pausing for celebrations of traditional observances (e.g., Cherokee New Year) and making special note of gratitude.

1. “Cherokee people say otsaliheliga to express gratitude. It is a reminder to celebrate our blessings and reflect on struggles.” How did you balance the upbeat (community activities, dancing, celebrations, etc.) with the somber (sacrifices of ancestors, historical struggles) in your story?

Traci Sorell: I mimicked what happens in life. There is always something that breaks your heart a little — a loss, a remembrance, a temporary parting with someone you love — and you have to acknowledge those things. But at the same time, there is so much that brings joy, like one’s culture, a birth, participating in ceremonial life, sharing a good meal, learning how to do something new, time with family. I knew Frané’s art would depict just the right amounts of joy and reverence.

Frané Lessac: In the safety of our book, young readers can discover solemn themes from the past and celebrate contemporary Cherokee life through the seasons. To balance these required art underpinned by a strong sense of family, community, and joie de vivre. While times may change, universal needs — such as respect and love of family — remain unchanged.

2. The book highlights traditions throughout the year, from the Great New Moon Ceremony to Cherokee National Holiday and many in between. Do you have a favorite among them?

TS: I love the Cherokee National Holiday in Tahlequah, the tribe’s capital located in northeastern Oklahoma. It celebrates the signing of the 1839 Constitution — after the difficult and tragic forced removal from our ancestral homelands in the east, our people came together to continue our government. Held over Labor Day weekend, the holiday is open to everyone and displays the hospitality we are known for! It features three full days of events, including a parade, traditional games and modern sports competitions, a State of the Nation address by the principal chief, live music, a children’s fishing tournament, authentic Cherokee food and artwork, and an intertribal powwow. (Even though powwows are not our tradition, we host a competition powwow with prize money for dancers. Like I said, we’re very hospitable!)

FL: While visiting the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, I had the opportunity to savour Cherokee bean bread and hominy soup, watch children play stickball, and hold ceremonial and traditional objects in my hands. In North Carolina I was fortunate to attend the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ powwow with music, dance, food, and crafts. Through the book’s art, I hope children can discover the traditions and celebrations that are woven into Cherokee cultural identity.

3. When did you decide to include the Cherokee syllabary on the pages?

TS: My original manuscript included the English transliteration and the pronunciation guide of the Cherokee words in the text: “elisi (eh-LEE-see), grandmother.” When I told my editor, Karen Boss, that children attending the tribe’s immersion school actually learn the Cherokee syllabary and not the English transliteration, she wanted the book to include it as well. Each time a Cherokee word appears in the text, there’s a guide at the bottom of the double-page spread showing the transliteration, pronunciation, syllabary, and the English word: “Tsalagi, JAH-lah-geeh, ᏣᎳᎩ, Cherokee.” I absolutely love that! I’m immensely grateful to the Cherokee Nation’s Cherokee Language Program for working so closely with us to make sure we got everything right.

4. The illustrations are not only colorful, but also play around with color in interesting ways (the cover illustration features an orange sky and black land). How closely (if at all) did you work with each other on illustration choices, including cultural accuracy?

TS: Because this book takes place across four seasons, I wanted the art to be vibrant. The Cherokee Nation citizens cover the color spectrum, ranging from blonde hair with light skin to black hair with black skin — yet we are all from the same tribe. Along with other Cherokee Nation citizens, I did review sketches for cultural accuracy. We suggested a few changes, but the use of color, settings, and people were all Frané’s creation based on her visit to the Cherokee Nation, her research, and materials we provided.

FL: Painting bright opaque colors on a dark background is my signature style, and I’m instinctively drawn to placing opposite colors next to one another. I realized it was vital to meet Traci in person and learn about present-day Cherokee life. I traveled to Oklahoma, and Traci connected me with members of her family, friends, and relevant staff from the Cherokee Heritage Center. This helped ensure that the artwork represented a broad spectrum of experiences and an expression of the diversity that endures within the Cherokee community. But the goal of my research wasn’t just to collect information—that was only the raw material. To tell this story required imagination, passion, and enthusiasm that I hope offers readers a sense of atmosphere, and insight into the Cherokee community. My wish is that children will immerse themselves in the text and a vibrant, playful, painterly world, searching for finer details. If they look carefully, they might discover a pileated woodpecker hidden in every double-page spread!

5. As Traci points out in the author’s note: “there have been few books that show present-day Cherokee children and their families.” What other stories do you hope to see on the shelf alongside this one?

TS: When one of the staff members at the Cherokee Heritage Center saw the book, she said, “I love that it shows us just living life in our culture. No one is a superhero.” Exactly! I want to see more stories where Cherokee children, adults, and elders are shown in contemporary settings having adventures and experiencing life’s ups and downs. We’re largely invisible in mainstream American culture, and disappear from classroom textbooks after the Trail of Tears. The Cherokee Nation is still here, still sovereign, and still teaching our language and culture to the next generation. I want to see more stories from Cherokee writers and artists sharing that reality with the world’s children.

FL: I hope our book encourages both established and emerging voices to create stories that acknowledge and respect Cherokee and other Native American cultures — to educate, inspire, and inform Indigenous and non-Indigenous children.

From the November 2018 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

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Comments

  1. Cara Falcetti says:

    My fifth grade classes and I love this book! The clip set to “Celebrate” helped us a lot, the ten-year-olds ask for it frequently. We’ve been watching shell dances as well. What a beautiful addition to any library.
    We are so grateful to Ms. Sorell and Ms. Lessac for this gem and hope they make their way to New York for some appearances.

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