Soft watercolor smudges of vibrant red, turquoise, and yellow sprawl across the first pages of the children’s book Jingle Dancer, by Cynthia Leitich Smith. Head in hand, Smith’s young protagonist, Jenna, imagines her grandmother donning Native American regalia as she dances a traditional jingle dance: “Tink, tink, tink, tink, sang cone-shaped jingles sewn to Grandma Wolfe’s dress.” 

Inside the wisps of Jenna’s daydream, Grandma Wolfe stands tall in a red dress sewn with neat rows of silver metal cones, which hit one another to create a tinkling, rainlike sound. She’s also wearing a contestant number strung along the bottom of her gown; she’s about to participate in the women’s jingle dance, a powwow event in which dancers compete for prize money. Smith and illustrators Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu further capture aspects of Native life, as with Jenna’s plate of honey-soaked fry bread at the kitchen table. As the story unfolds, Jenna sets out to make her own jingle dress with the help of her aunts and cousins, borrowing their dresses’ “jingles” to attach to her own and dance in their place. With the distinct combined sound of her loved ones, Jenna finds her voice and joins her community’s dancers for the first time. 

Jenna, like Smith herself, is a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. From her home in Austin, Smith has written and published eight contemporary Native American and Indigenous stories for children. But Smith isn’t just using her own voice: she’s also the curator of Heartdrum, a HarperCollins Publishers imprint that features Native authors and their works centered around Indigenous characters for young audiences. 

According to statistics from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, less than 2 percent of children’s books are about Indigenous characters. In Smith’s experience, that representation gap continued into author spaces: at writing workshops, she was often the only Native woman in the group. Then Smith and Ellen Oh, CEO of the nonprofit We Need Diverse Books (WNDB), began to discuss the logistics of creating an Indigenous imprint (a subbrand housed within a publishing company) to fill the void in children’s publishing. “It sounded like the kind of job for someone who was very famous and very fancy, and I don’t think of myself as either,” Smith recalls. After getting the green light at HarperCollins, Heartdrum launched in 2021 with the mission of empowering Indigenous authors and young readers through Native-led books. Since its debut, Heartdrum has more than doubled its initial publishing goal of four books a year as the imprint has steadily grown in readership. As it continues to grow in titles and attract new authors, it’s also attracting attention. Heartdrum published Byron Graves’ Rez Ball, which won the 2024 American Library Association’s William C. Morris Award for teen books by first-time authors.

“It’s important for our kids to see themselves as heroes of their own life stories,” Smith says. “It’s important for other folks to recognize that . . . it’s a level of understanding that’s deeper than facts, or a kind of checklist. It doesn’t just say ‘Oh, [Indigenous people] are still here.’ ” 

Heartdrum, named after the pounding drum sounds at powwows and the thrumming heartfelt connection between intertribal Native communities, currently features a range of stories that showcase both urban and reservation life. With Dawn Quigley’s spunky and opinionated Jo Jo Makoons, in the series of the same name, and family-oriented picture books like Kim Rogers’ Just Like Grandma, Heartdrum’s books boast both the silly and the sentimental stories of characters and families from, for example, the Ojibwe and Wichita tribes. “We decided to lean into fiction that was really centered on individual kids, that other kids can get to know and become friends with and care about on the page,” Smith says. “We wanted to give them three-dimensional people that they could fall in love with, both Native and non-Native kids.”  

As part of their core values, Heartdrum and WNDB believe children’s books are a key aspect of the conversation about representation and visibility for Indigenous and non-Indigenous readers. Caroline Richmond acts as executive director at WNDB and oversees many of its programming initiatives, including the Native Fund, which provides mentorship and financial resources to authors and book donations to Native communities. Richmond, who is Chinese American, says she didn’t see herself reflected in literature until her freshman year of high school, when a teacher assigned The Joy Luck Club, by Amy Tan. She doesn’t want today’s young readers to have to wait so long. “Kids’ books turn children into lifelong readers,” Richmond says. “We lose a lot of kids, or we never get them on board in the first place, because they’re never able to connect with stories; they’re not able to see themselves in them.”

One of the connecting pieces between Heartdrum and WNDB’s efforts are the independent booksellers that get these books on shelves. Smith credits shops such as Austin’s BookPeople for supporting diverse authors who are getting their footing in publishing, as well as for bringing in readers. Meghan Goel, BookPeople’s children’s book buyer and programmer, stocks works from Heartdrum and appreciates the imprint’s perspective on kid lit. “Kids are figuring out this world just like the rest of us,” Goel says. “The more entry points we can give them into what that means and the different people in [the world] and the different points of view in it, that’s a really good thing.” 

Smith says she sees herself in her books, especially when she thinks about her relationship with her grandpa, who died around the time she was born. She got to know him through the eyes of her family and felt all the emotions his loved ones held after his death. “[Hearing about him] cemented in my mind how powerful story is, because I have a relationship with my grandfather that feels as though he’s always been there,” Smith said. “There’s a certain magic in that, but it’s also how people make sense of themselves and each other. That’s something through books that I want to give to kids . . . love can be transferred to a lot of kids through story.”