Author Angeline Boulley is living proof that it’s never too late to write your own story.
Boulley, who is 56, first got the idea for her young adult novel Firekeeper’s Daughter (Henry Holt and Co., 2021), about an 18-year-old Ojibwe girl who helps an undercover FBI investigation, when she was a senior in high school. But she didn’t start writing her debut until she was 44—and the book wasn’t published until a decade after that.
“I may not have been writing for all of those years between 18 and 44, but I was creating, I was working [on the] puzzle pieces,” she told attendees of the American Library Association’s virtual LibLearnX conference on January 22.
The accolades for Firekeeper’s Daughter—the book is a 2022 Morris Award finalist, was named to TIME magazine’s 100 Best YA Books of All Time list, and is a New York Times bestseller—have contributed to an “incredible journey,” said Boulley, especially considering she didn’t formally study writing or literature.
“I didn’t have any background in writing other than one course in college. I got the message from my parents that you don’t major in hobbies—you major in something with earning potential,” the first-generation college student said. “I am a storyteller. It’s just that my storytelling training has been as a grant writer [for tribal communities]. That doesn’t make it any less valid.”
Boulley was immersed in books growing up: “I credit my parents for their love of reading—and eclectic reading.” She fondly recalled memories of listening to audiobooks with her father, a truck driver, and walking the mile from her childhood home to the library with her mother and siblings every Saturday. She used to save her money to buy batteries for her flashlight, so that she could stay up late reading after her family went to sleep.
It wasn’t until high school that she read her first book featuring a Native American protagonist. “When I finished the book, I was less than satisfied,” said Boulley. “The author played into some stereotypes that were so inauthentic to me.… That book made me realize the importance of reading books where we can see ourselves reflected.”
Representation is at the center of Firekeeper’s Daughter. Boulley herself is a member of the Bear Clan from Sugar Island in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and she has imbued her book with details that illuminate her own experiences. For instance, she decided to use the Ojibwe medicine wheel as a cultural framework for plotting the mythologic hero’s journey.
The plot points she didn’t know, she researched thoroughly—which often took her to the library. “I did check out a lot of books about chemistry,” said Boulley. She also tapped the expertise of a Native, retired FBI agent and watched a demonstration from Michigan State Police on how the drug crystal meth is made. “Those are just some of the ways libraries—and securing unusual and wonderful resources and sources—really helped bring the story to life.”
While Boulley nodded to the teachings of professor Rudine Sims Bishop—who coined the phrase “mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors” to explain how children see themselves and others in books—she also cited the belief of Debbie Reese, founder of American Indians in Children’s Literature, that “curtains” should be added to this metaphor, in order to protect a culture from misunderstanding or misappropriation.
“I write to preserve my culture and I edit to protect it,” said Boulley. During the revision process, for example, she decided not to include an actual tribal ceremony in the book. Instead, her goal was to capture the nuances of her community—and not just share its trauma but also share its joy and strength.
“I’m just so thankful to be playing a part in that,” Boulley told viewers in closing. “There are 574 federally recognized tribes and each is so unique…. We are not relics of the past. We’re still here and we have dynamic stories to tell.”