Young audiences searching for fresh storytelling have something to look forward to this April thanks to Dynamite and Curiosity Ink Media (the family entertainment component of Grom Social Enterprises, Inc.) Thunderous from celebrated Montana Poet Laureate M. L. Smoker is described as the “story of a modern teen’s journey to connect with her indigenous culture,” offering the young reader an authentic, creative narrative from voices that may not always get center stage. It also provides an opportunity to crush stereotypes that have come before it.
Smoker’s co-writer on the graphic novel is Natalie Peeterse, also a poet and independent publisher. Art is by Dale Deforest and cover art is by Oriol Vidal.
Smoker chatter with The Beat ahead of the book’s debut.
Deanna Destito: Why is a story like this so necessary right now, especially for young readers?
M.L. Smoker: Diversity in literature is so important to developing a new generation’s understanding of the lives and experiences of different groups of people and communities. We need to be honest and accurate when talking about the complexities of history, race, and identity – AND who has had the power to speak to those complexities over time. A story like Thunderous is a part of the Native American narrative that is being reimagined and rewritten from our perspective and our truth. And it is a contemporary story that hopefully helps to break down some of the misconceptions and stereotypes about Natives that are so pervasive in media, literature, and education, in particular.
Destito: What or who inspired the characters and plot?
Smoker: It is definitely the case that pieces of my own experience and that of my family and others are a source of inspiration for the characters and overall story. For example, I was partially raised by my grandmother and have also helped to raise nieces and nephews. And of course, being a Native woman – my culture, heritage, history, and the work as an educator that I’ve dedicated most of my life to – all has an impact.
Also, Natalie and I have children that we thought of in developing the story, as they are in the primary age group as our audience will be. We thought of them a lot. We’d throw some ideas their way that were sometimes met with enthusiasm, other times, not so much!
Destito: How does this format compare to other forms of writing that you are more accustomed to?
Smoker: Natalie and I are both trained poets – we have our MFAs in creative writing from the same university where we met. Poetry is, for us, a very personal form of self-exploration and expression. In writing this type of content, we needed to both continue along those lines while also knowing we were speaking (hopefully) to a broader truth. In this situation, it was especially important for us to carefully consider the dialogue between our characters and also what to have characters say or speak versus what would be shown through the illustrations.
Destito: How was it working with Natalie as well as the art team?
Smoker: I believe in collaboration wholeheartedly, the power it can bring to any situation, and so working with one of my best friends in bringing a story like Thunderous to life has been a gift. The pandemic certainly provided Natalie and I the opportunity to grow even closer, as we primarily maintained a quarantine bubble with our children. We made the most of a difficult situation, as many of us had to do, and writing this story has been a bright spot – though we’ve shared both laughter and tears throughout. The art team took many of our suggestions that we embedded in drafts of the narrative and truly did an amazing job, bringing it even more authenticity and vibrancy. Dale is truly a remarkable illustrator. We could not have asked for a better partner. We are certain his work will inspire more young people to dive into their own artistry.
Destito: Did you have a hand in the color palette and how does it bring out or work well with the narrative that you are trying to tell?
Smoker: We did not directly advise on the coloring process, besides some of the obvious like playing a role in crafting these characters and their features, descriptions, etc. But the whole creative team has been excellent in working together and each of us contributing our best effort to this book. Colorists Adriano Augusto, Lisa Moore, and Omi Remalante Jr. have done a stellar job capturing the vision that we had in the writing process, and then bringing Dale Deforest’s art to the next level.
Destito: What can readers of all ages learn from reading this book?
Smoker: This story connects to aspects of traditional Lakota storytelling that are important and we hope that those shine through for all readers. Aiyana feels, senses, and thinks, like many of us have in our lives, from being insecure and unsure of herself, to being open eventually to what comes her way. If readers walk away from the book and have learned something new about Native Americans, the Lakota in particular, through the journey Aiyana takes, that would be wonderful. And if Native children see themselves somehow reflected in the pages, even better.
Thunderous will debut alongside Independent Book Store Day, a national celebration of independent bookstores to be held on Saturday, April 30.