We Are Grateful: Author Traci Sorell and Illustrator Frané Lessac's 2019 BGHB Picture Book Honor Speech

TRACI SORELL: Some books seem to make their way in the world even if there wasn’t a clear intention to do so at the beginning. Such is the case with We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga. I had written a few contemporary picture-book manuscripts featuring Cherokee children and culture before I penned this one. When I won a free Skype critique of a manuscript from author Suzanne Slade, I panicked. Feeling I had nothing worthy of sharing, I reviewed previous mentor texts to see if any might prompt a story. I got lucky. Joanne Rocklin and Monika Filipina’s I Say Shehechiyanu provided the poetic setup that got my creative juices flowing. I quickly sketched out my story, set across four seasons, of how gratitude is taught and shared through contemporary Cherokee life, culture, and language. 

A few months later, an intern pulled my manuscript from the slush pile at Charlesbridge and gave it to editor Karen Boss. Karen requested that I add an introductory page, a few more definitions, and a note about the Cherokee syllabary; she also asked me to provide a list of Cherokee or other Native illustrators as well as some non-Native artists whose styles I liked. I included Frané on that list. 

I always like to say that partnering with Frané is what amplified the magic of creating this book. After she signed on, we got to work — I emailed Frané a list of recommended books, website links, videos, and other materials that would help acquaint her with contemporary life in the Cherokee Nation. 

FRANÉ LESSAC: Meanwhile, I’d applied for an artist travel grant from the Australian government to visit the Cherokee Nation. When I didn’t receive one, I decided to travel with my own funds from my home in West Australia, meeting up with Traci in Tahlequah, the Cherokee Nation capital. Traci toured me around the area with the help of other Cherokee citizens. (She even used her status as older sister to boss her younger brother, a professionally trained chef, into making bean bread and hominy soup for me as part of my research!) I shared rough sketches with Traci and the staff at the Cherokee Heritage Center. Their valuable feedback, coupled with over five hundred images of Cherokee people and the flora and fauna in northeastern Oklahoma provided by an award-winning Cherokee photographer, gave me a strong foundation to finalize my sketches and get approval from the book’s art director to create the final art. 

Accurately portraying present-day Cherokee people, through thorough research, was my sole focus. I valued meeting members of the community and having the full support of Cherokee Nation cultural experts and wisdom-keepers throughout the illustration process. 

 

TRACI SORELL AND FRANÉ LESSAC: The book’s reception by Cherokee people, the Cherokee Nation, and the public at large has been amazing; it shows the need for more authentic reflections of Native Nations and their citizens. And because of our strong partnership and affinity for each other, Charlesbridge asked if we would create another book together. We loved the idea and are currently working on a picture book titled We Are Still Here! 

From the January/February 2020 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. For more on the 2019 Boston Globe–Horn Book Awards, click on the tag BGHB19. Read Five Questions for Traci Sorell and Frané Lessac.

Traci Sorell and Frané Lessac

Traci Sorell and Frané Lessac are the author and illustrator, respectively, of We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga (Charlesbridge), winner of a 2019 Boston Globe-Horn Book Picture Book Honor Award.

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