“I want Native children to see themselves in modern stories in their communities…” – An Author Interview with Laurel Goodluck

Laurel Goodluck is Mandan, Hidatsa from the prairies of North Dakota, and Tsimshian from the rainforest in Alaska. She now resides in Albuquerque, New Mexico, with her Diné husband, where they raised two children also bent on storytelling in journalism and acting. Belonging to an intertribal family is at the heart of her stories, encouraging children to realize their cultural experiences are unique and powerful perspectives to explore and celebrate. Follow Laurel on Instagram @lauriegoodluck.

At Diverse BookFinder, we’re all about the importance of diverse, representative literature for children. What does representation mean for you? How has that changed over time, if at all?

Representation in literature for children is paramount. I never saw myself in books, nor did my children. When my children were young, I’d cut and paste pictures of them into their books. Not only did they see their beautiful brown faces, but they also saw symbols of their culture, such as moccasins, ribbon shirts, gourd rattles, etc.

Today, I write picture books in the same vein. I want Native children to see themselves in modern stories in their communities and heroes solving problems and critically thinking. All children deserve to feel valued. As their identities are forming, books can be a source that makes them feel proud, stand tall, and have that “can-do attitude.”

All children benefit from reading books with Native children as the main characters in modern stories. According to the National Congress of American Indians, as of 2018, the K-12 curriculum in 27 states doesn’t mention an individual Native person, with 87% of state history standards failing to teach Native history after 1900. The lack of modern Native representation perpetuates stereotypes that Native people are only in the past. Combine this with the Native Mascot problem, bolstering racial stereotypes and cultural misappropriation, especially for communities with little or no contact with Native people.

How did you first learn about Rock Your Mocs Day? What are some of your favorite ways to celebrate?

Rock Your Mocs Day began in 2011 with a young woman, a teen at the time named Jessica “Jaylyn” Atsye, from Laguna Pueblo, New Mexico, declaring that moccasins shouldn’t be saved only for ceremonies and powwows. What if Indigenous people could show their Native pride and use them as everyday wear? She chose November 15, during Native American Heritage Month, as a day for Native and First Nations people to wear moccasins.

Rock Your Mocs Day steadily grew in popularity when Jessica involved Emergence Productions to spread the celebration across the United States, Canada, and worldwide. Schoolchildren and adults began to wear their mocs on November 15. Eventually, the organizers selected an entire week in November for Rock Your Mocs events. This year, it is November 12 – 18.

Image including a photo of author Laurel Goodluck along with photos of a pair of floral moccasins and the book cover of "Rock Your Mocs."

I learned about Rock Your Mocs Day on social media. I came across the Facebook page  https://www.facebook.com/RockYourMocs. I would celebrate by wearing my Mocs to work. Still, I love to look at the Mocs Facebook site and view all the beautiful celebrations and variety of Mocs that people proudly display. It brings a connection and joy to see communities and people feeling the same love of wearing their culture beyond the powwow or ceremony as Jalyn intended. I also celebrate Rock Your Mocs book with school children, librarians, and teachers. I encourage cultural pride with all the participants during my presentations.

Could you tell us a bit about your own moccasins? Do they have any favorite design elements or stories you associate with them?

My late grandma, Louella Atkinson, from Ketchikan, Alaska, kept me and my family in moccasins growing up. She was a moccasin maker and basket weaver and taught the Tsimshian language in the schools. She was a remarkable and feisty 4’11” tall woman who worked in the canneries, dressed to the nines when not working, and always wore a smile. 

She made my family moccasins with deer and rabbit fur and beaded the word Alaska, our names, or eagles as artful adornments. Thanks to illustrator Madelyn Goodnight (Chickasaw Nation), who had the grand idea of illustrating our favorite mocs. You can see my mocs on the dedication page. On the left is my Alaskan mocs grandma made, and on the right is my northern pair. You can find Madelyn’s beautiful Chickasaw pair on the title page.

Illustration by Madelyn Goodnight from Rock Your Mocs by Laurel Goodluck. Shows two sets of moccasins.
Illustration by Madelyn Goodnight from Rock Your Mocs by Laurel Goodluck

I am from an intertribal family. I am Tsimshian from a rainforest in SE Alaska and Mandan and Hidatsa from the prairies of North Dakota. I am married to Kevin Goodluck, who is Diné. I am lucky to have collected moccasins through the years of my and my husband’s tribes. I used to powwow dance in college, so I have northern-style mocs with leggings, too. My children have beautiful mocs that they came home from the hospital in. I have all their intertribal baby mocs collected and saved, too.

You’ve written about your own intertribal identity and family, as well as made a point to depict Indigenous children from many different tribes and nations (including intertribal and multicultural backgrounds from across Turtle Island). Can you tell us about these choices and their significance to you?

I am from an intertribal family and grew up in an intertribal community that my parents created in the California Bay Area. They had recently relocated through the dishonorable United States Indian Relocation Program. However, my parents were recent graduates of Haskell Institute (now Haskell Indian Nations University) and created the Haskell Club with their siblings and fellow alums. This intertribal community insulated the adults and children from the harsh racist times we sometimes experienced in the suburbs. The club focused on child- and family-centered activities, and I felt all the children were my cousins. All the families kept connected to their homelands by summer road trips and special occasions. This community opened my world to other Native Nations and a larger world of diverse people and places.

So, this special feeling of connection with intertribal people and nations never left me. The lessons of a bigger world and honoring our unique Native Nations is a theme I highlight in my books whenever possible. Rock Your Mocs was the perfect opportunity. However, it was not easy to select only twelve Native Nations and Tribes. I wish I could have chosen all 574 Native tribes or Alaska entities in the US. I was honestly lost in my research when selecting tribes. But I specifically picked the Little Shell Chippewa because they were recently federally recognized after a long battle to get this status.

I looked at many websites of tribal governments and conducted some interviews in the Nations I was considering. They were all doing inspiring activities for their children, such as language and cultural revitalization. I was swimming in choices and felt conflicted. I finally selected tribes based on the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) regions. But I still love looking back at my research when I want to see all these inspiring kids with big smiles, riding bikes, learning ballet, singing songs in their language, harvesting willow and grass to make baskets, and so much more. It just puts a lump in my throat, thinking how beautiful our children are growing up.

What was it like working with Madelyn Goodnight to bring “Rock Your Mocs” to life through illustrations?

In trade publishing, when one writes a picture book, one leaves the final decision to the editor and art department to find the best illustrator for the story. They have the expertise and experience to find the perfect illustrator.

Heartdrum (HarperCollins imprint) allows the writer to have some input. In the case of Rock Your Mocs, they were very open to suggestions when I asked if they would consider Madelyn Goodnight a Chickasaw illustrator. I adored her art style. She has this soft and gentle palette that I knew she could capture the emotion and variety needed. Madelyn wanted to be a part of the project, and thus, the sketches began for Rock Your Mocs.

Illustration by Madelyn Goodnight from Rock Your Mocs by Laurel Goodluck. 

Shows Indigenous children wearing moccasins playing with kites and running through a green field.
Illustration by Madelyn Goodnight from Rock Your Mocs by Laurel Goodluck. 

Shows Indigenous children wearing moccasins playing with kites and running through a green field.

Illustration by Madelyn Goodnight from Rock Your Mocs by Laurel Goodluck

When the editor sent me the preliminary sketches, I opened the attached drawings on a large screen. I just marveled at her art that shined with emotion and joy. The characters and scenery were perfect. The story was whole with Madelyn’s art.

It wasn’t until Madelyn and I both attended Southwest Indian Market in Santa Fe, NM, that we met. It is not unusual for a picture book writer and illustrator to never meet, but our small Native world of children’s book creatives is very close, so it is not unusual for our community.  

What do you find to be the most challenging part of creating books for children today? What is the most rewarding?

The most challenging part of writing is finding the time to write. Recently, I have had several books published simultaneously. Rock Your Mocs came out in October 2023, and She Persisted: Deb Haaland, a young reader (age 6-9) chapter book with Penguin Random House. Once 2024 rolls around, I will have four more books coming out each year.

I have worked hard to tell these stories, but now I am learning that the business side of writing is very time-consuming, such as marketing and public appearances. On top of all this, I have four separate publishers and editors, so I am juggling the two-year picture book process with each one. Although it is a team approach, the writer still has a lot of responsibility.

Of course, I am grateful for my success, but I miss the writing process and the creativity it brought me daily.

What was your favorite childhood book? What was it about it that you loved?

My favorite childhood book was a young reader called The Fire Cat by Esther Averill. It is about a young yellow polka-dotted cat named Pickles. He didn’t have a home and lived in a barrel. He did bad things like chase little cats until, one day, he got caught in a tree. Mrs. Goodkind tried to offer him a home, but he was destined for bigger things. He became a good cat and lived and helped the fire department that saved him from the tree.

I loved this book because I related to Pickles and Mrs. Goodkind. I, too, would not listen at times and was strong-willed. And like Pickles, I had a community who loved me and believed in me even if I was different and didn’t follow the rules. Like Pickles, I tried new things and felt fearless, like riding a unicycle, hopping on pogo sticks, and walking on stilts. I also liked making friends and helping the new kids in our classroom feel welcome.  So, remember to find people who believe in you, and you can be yourself and do big things, too.

You’ve got another picture book, “Too Much: My Great BIG Native Family,” releasing in January! Can you tell us a little about that story and what we can expect? 

I love this book. Okay, I love all my books, but this one is illustrated by Bridget George, who is from the Anishinaabe Nation of Kettle and Stony Point in Ontario. She brings a whimsical sensibility, characters as cute as a button, and color selection to her art that automatically draws you in. Just look at the cover with Russell, the main character, in his space outfit surrounded by his great big Native family. One can’t help but love this family before you even open the book.

Cover Art by Bridget George for Too Much: My Great Big Native Family by Laurel Goodluck.
Cover Art by Bridget George for Too Much: My Great Big Native Family by Laurel Goodluck

Russell is so proud that he got a part in a play. His family is too busy and too much to pay attention to him. He finally decides to go on his own and then finds out how much he misses this big and boisterous family. You’ll have to read the ending to find out what happens.

What I love about Russell’s family is all the modern places they attend as a family. I want kids to see themselves reflected by their intergenerational and big families traveling through life. I also use a lot of similes and reframes in the story. I hope these poetic techniques have all kids feeling the emotions of the big family.

Illustration from "Too Much: My Great Big Native Family" by Laurel Goodluck showing the narrator and his large family exploring an aquarium exhibit of a large blue whale.
Interior Illustration by Bridget George for Too Much: My Great Big Native Family by Laurel Goodluck

Are you working on any other upcoming projects? What can you tell us about them?

I’m attempting a new picture book that is a tall tale. I’m stretching myself, trying to infuse the unbelievable and exaggerated actions of the main character. I want Native kids to see themselves in all kinds of books, especially those that push the limits. I say, “why not!” Let’s all laugh out loud and keep picking up books because they are so funny. 

This story is inspired by an actual family reunion that my cousin attended, where a southwest desert flash flood unexpectedly rumbled in, creating a river and trapping the family for a while. So, stay tuned, and we’ll see if I can pull this off.

Is there anything else you would like to share with the Diverse BookFinder audience?

I currently have three books circulating, two of which have been censored. Forever Cousins was banned (AKA: held from circulation) by the Brandywine, Michigan School Board, while She Persisted: Deb Haaland was part of the books held on shelves unless librarians pushed the diverse button (segregated – AKA: banned) to include in their Scholastic Book Fair. Note: Scholastic has apologized and recently reversed this practice.

Conservative PACS, financially backing the election of the members of the school boards, are often behind the power of these boards. These powerful banning tactics are not used for the benefit of the students but to fuel the fear of the changing diverse demographics in the United States. So, I encourage readers to become aware of your community’s school boards and local governments. Most importantly, vote, volunteer, and donate to elect sincere child-centered educators to these boards and local governments. Also, as diverse creatives in the book industry, we need to be aware that publishing sometimes puts business before children.

I thank you all for this opportunity to express myself as a storyteller. Keep reading, creating, and loving what you do, and help pass it on!

Diverse BookFinder would like to thank Laurel Goodluck for her time and input.

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