Sorell’s debut book features all things Cherokee
“We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga” by Cherokee author Traci Sorell reflects modern-day Cherokee life using history, culture, beliefs and the Cherokee language. The picture book will be released Sept. 4 and be available at two book signings during the Cherokee National Holiday. COURTESY
TAHLEQUAH – Cherokee Nation citizen Traci Sorell’s debut nonfiction picture book “We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga” reflects modern-day Cherokee life using history, culture, beliefs and the Cherokee language.
Set for a Sept. 4 release, the book has a free downloadable teacher’s guide to help educators in schools.
“It shares how we are taught to be grateful every day, every season regardless of what has occurred in our lives. Cherokee people have language, history, culture and beliefs that we can draw upon to strengthen our families, our communities and our tribal nation. I wanted to have that reality reflected in a children’s book,” Sorell said.
She said her love for children’s picture books that feature Native people, history and culture inspired her to write the book. She has collected children’s books since her college days.
“The sparse, lyrical text paired with beautiful art draws me in every time. They’re not at all like the Little Golden Books I grew up on as a child,” she said. “After my son was born, I noticed nearly all the books I had were either traditional stories or about Native people and historical events prior to 1900. I wondered where all the fiction and nonfiction picture books featuring modern Native life were. If I noticed this, surely other parents and grandparents did, too. That’s what inspired me to write for children.”
She hopes her book encourages children to be grateful for their Cherokee ancestors and all they did for them to be here as well as how “we have to stay strong together every day, every season for those coming after us.”
Sorell understands that today’s Cherokee children live in a wide range of realities. “Many will not be familiar with the Cherokee words in the book or some of the cultural practices. I hope it spurs them along with their family members to seek out cultural experiences and to learn our language. There are so many more opportunities now for Cherokee children to learn our culture and language than when I was growing up in the (19) 70s and early (19) 80s. Anyone can access stories, ‘Osiyo TV’ and cultural information online regardless of where they live. For others living closer, they can visit the Cherokee Heritage Center, attend summer camps, sing in the youth choir and participate in traditional games and art shows.”
Sorell said she had no clue about how the children’s publishing world worked before she started writing. She joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators in 2013, attended conferences in Oklahoma, Kansas and Iowa and read books to learn how to write for children.
“I wrote ‘We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga’ in November 2015. I submitted it to several trade publishing houses the following month and sold it to Charlesbridge Publishing in March 2016. That’s super fast and definitely not the norm in the industry that I describe as moving at a ‘glacial pace,’” she said.
Because the subject focused on Cherokee people in the CN and most illustrators in the business have little to no knowledge of the people and culture, the process went differently, Sorell said.
“The illustrator, Frané Lessac, traveled from her home in western Australia to Tahlequah. We met and spent time together traveling around the area, which gave her the opportunity to taste the food, meet our citizens and see the landscape, the plants and animals,” she said. “She shared her initial rough sketches with me and other Cherokee people to get feedback. That process continued after she returned home, completed the final sketches and then painted the full color art.”
The book won’t be released until Sept. 4, but the publisher agreed to send copies early so people attending the Cherokee National Holiday could purchase them at the CN Gift Shop and Cherokee Heritage Center.
“I’m looking forward to signing books in the lobbies of both locations that weekend,” Sorell said. “As an author and poet, I can determine what I write, but I cannot control if my words will be purchased or how they will be received, edited, illustrated, or critiqued once they are. That realization is very freeing for me to continue working on a variety of other projects.”
Sorell said it takes a “village” to create a book and that the author and illustrator are co-creators. She said depending on text, the illustrator may tell more than 50 percent of the story in the art.
“For my part, I had many people within my family and within the Cherokee Nation who helped and advised me since no one person holds all cultural or linguistic knowledge. So, ‘We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga’ is not just my book. It has been created through the work of many Cherokee people, Frané Lessac and those at the publishing company,” she said. “Once it is out in the world, it will be everyone’s book. Knowing that has helped me to create more work. I’ve written and sold other books to trade and educational market publishers since selling this first one.”
She said she enjoys being a part of the children’s literature community and has found “amazing” authors, illustrators, publishing professionals, teachers and librarians committed to putting quality books in the hands of children. “Because of this, I actively recruit Native storytellers and artists to lend their talents to this field because we need more books by us for our kids.”
For more information, visit www.tracisorell.com