An Interview with Author and Poet Colby Cedar Smith by Jen Doktorski

After reading and loving Colby Cedar Smith's novel in verse, Call Me Athena: Girl from Detroit, I had so many questions! Thankfully, when I reached out to Colby about doing an interview here at YAOTL, she was happy to answer them. Welcome, Colby!

Colby Cedar Smith is an award-winning poet, novelist, and educator. Colby has spent the last twenty years teaching creative writing and storytelling workshops in elementary and secondary schools, art museums, nature centers, community centers, and corporations. Her poetry has been been published in numerous review and magazines, and has been a finalist for over twenty poetry prizes including The Iowa Review Poetry Award, the New Letters  Poetry Prize, the Colorado Prize for Poetry; and a semi-finalist for the 92Y “Discovery”/Boston Review Poetry Prize. In 2020, Colby received a New Jersey Council on the Arts Fellowship in Poetry.

Colby's debut novel in verse, Call Me Athena: Girl from Detroit  (2021) has been chosen as a Junior Library Guild Gold Selection Standard Selection; an American Booksellers Association Kids’ Indie Next Pick; a Cybils Award Poetry Finalist; a 2021 Goodreads Choice Best Poetry Nominee, A Kid's Book Choice Finalist for Stellar Storytelling; a 2022 Independent Publisher Book Awards Silver medal for YA Fiction; a 2022 Silver Nautilus Award for Lyric Prose; a 2021 Michigan notable book; and the winner of the Midwest Book Award for YA Fiction. She holds a B.A. in creative writing from Colorado College, and an Ed.M in arts in education from Harvard University.  You can connect with her on Twitter  @ColbyCedar, or Instagram  @Colby_Cedar_Smith

Call Me Athena, Girl From Detroit, is told beautifully and expertly in verse through the eyes of three narrators with an additional storyline being told through found letters. How did you decide where to begin telling this story and how did you manage to weave together three timelines so seamlessly?

It wasn’t easy! In fact, it was one of the most difficult parts of crafting the book.


Initially, I wrote the CALL ME ATHENA in three different sections. First Gio and Jeanne’s, and then Mary’s. They were stacked chronologically.


After my first submission to editors and receiving comments, I realized there needed to be one main character driving the storyline. I decided the narrative should revolve around Mary–– with the background of depression era Detroit.


Mary’s family is struggling with poverty, xenophobia, bad healthcare, hunger strikes, and a violent massacre at the Ford Factory. I structured the novel around Mary’s main questions, “Why did my parents come to America?” and “Why do we stay here, when life is so difficult?” I used flashbacks to her parent’s lives in Greece and France during WWI to explore these questions. In the book, Mary learns her parents can never go back. There has been too much tragedy and loss.


As for the actual crafting, I physically had to braid this story together. I spread it across the floor––section by section. And tried to figure out where the most dramatic breaks would be, and how I could keep the reader turning the page, wondering what would happen next.


The story of 16-year-old Mary takes us to Depression-era Detroit, where Mary lives in a tiny apartment with her siblings and immigrant parents. Tell us about your connection to Detroit and the research you did to bring Mary’s story to life.


First and foremost, CALL ME ATHENA is a love letter for my grandmother, and a love letter for Detroit. The power of place is an important theme in this story. I see the city of Detroit as being a main character in this book.


My grandmother was born and raised in Detroit, and my father lived there for his early childhood. I was raised in the Midwest. Even though I live in New Jersey, my roots are there. I think the Detroit energy ––the fight, the drive, the hustle––still lives in my blood and bones.


A lot of this book is based on oral history. My grandmother loved to talk about her childhood––Greektown, her siblings, her parents. She told many stories about her experiences as Henry Ford’s elevator girl at the Ford Factory. I spent a lot of time sitting on her knee, drinking it all in.


These stories inspired my research, but I also read many articles and books, and watched documentaries about the city during the 30s. I took my family to Detroit, and we visited all the spots in the book––the Ford Museum, River Rouge, Fox Theater, my grandmother’s high school and neighborhood (Highland Park), The Art Institute, and Belle Isle. I loved showing my kids these landmarks.


You also transport readers to France and Greece during World War I. What kind of research and/or travel did you do to bring these settings to life?


I delved deep into WWI history. I poured over photographs, journal entries of American nurses posted in France, and watched documentaries.


When I was a child, we visited our family in Greece. I studied the photographs from our visits, so I could remember the landscape and my family’s history there.


I also traveled to France and found the convent and the hospital where Jeanne would have worked in Saint-Malo. I walked the grounds and tried to transport myself to that time.


I speak French, so it was amazing to speak one of her languages in the town where she was born. I ate traditional foods from Saint-Malo (kouign amann), drank honey brew (chouchen), and listened to accordion and fiddle music on the street. I felt like these experiences brought me closer to my great-grandmother.


CALL ME ATHENA is a work of fiction, but the foundation of the story is based on my family’s experience, and it’s bolstered by years of research.


Ruta Sepetys, the award-winning and best-selling author of historical fiction including Salt to the Sea (one of my all-time favorite YA novels) calls your book “Exquisite.” That’s an amazing compliment. How did your connection to Ruta come about?


I get emotional every time I think about this question.


Ruta is a long-time hero of mine. I love her work. Salt to the Sea is one of the books that has inspired me as a writer. (It’s also my favorite YA novel!)


I asked my glorious literary agent, Allison Hellegers, to try to contact Ruta. When she agreed, I wrote Ruta an emotional letter about how much her work has inspired me. Alli was an incredible champion for the book, and she sent ATHENA to Ruta’s agent. We thought it was a shot in the dark, but worth the effort.


We waited and then I finally received an email from Ruta.


I tear up every time I think about her beautiful letter. She complimented me and said she loved my writing and said she believed in the book. I can’t tell you how much that meant to me as an emerging writer.


Then she told me she came from Detroit. (I didn’t know this when we sent it to her.) She came from an immigrant family just like Mary’s and she really connected with her story, as a first generation American. And––shivers––while my grandmother was Ford’s elevator girl in the 1930s, her grandfather was Ford’s gardener.


I swear, you can’t make this stuff up.


Ruta told me, just like Mary, she grew up with a foreign-sounding last name that no one could pronounce, and when it came time to marry, she fell in love with a man who had the last name Smith. For those of you who have read the book, that’s Billy’s last name. And my maiden name.


The connections were uncanny.


Thus began a beautiful friendship, and many notes between us, and I can’t tell you how grateful I am for her kindness and support. She is a generous, lovely human.


What’s next? Are you primarily interested in YA and historical fiction or do you write across genres.


I just completed my second YA historical novel in verse called ACADEMY OF THE UNKNOWN. Hopefully, it will become a published book soon––fingers crossed!


ACADEMY OF THE UNKNOWN is about Lula Gabroni, a vocal student at the New England Conservatory of Music who is inspired by a Barbara Strozzi, a female composer from Venice in the 1600s.


It’s a combination of YA music kids, ghosty spirituality, and Venice. Think: Baroque High School Musical, mixed with Blood, Water, Paint, and DaVinci Code. It's a layered and braided narrative, filled with best friends, mother-daughter relationships, feminism, art, ownership, body autonomy, gender-bending, and lots of beauty and adventure. (Plus, a historical treasure hunt––including skeleton keys, hidden libraries, gondolas, Italian opera, a wager, and forbidden love affairs.)


I can’t wait for it to become a book.


My next project is to be determined, but I might try my hand at prose written for adult readers. I’m excited to try something new.


Also, I’ve always wanted to publish a full-length manuscript of poetry. That would be a dream come true.


As council members for the Rutgers University Council on Childrens’ Literature, you and I recently attended their annual conference and sat in on the young adult break-out session, where we discussed the future of YA and some of the challenges facing our genre. What have your experiences been with reaching readers?

Honestly, this industry is changing so rapidly, it’s hard to know how to best connect to readers. As a writer, not a marketing expert, it’s hard to know how to attract more attention on social media, but that seems to be so important these days.

One thing I can say is that I love the fans of ATHENA, and I am so grateful for all they have done to promote the book.

It helps so much when readers pre-order a book; request it at their neighborhood independent bookstore and libraries; rate it on Goodreads and Amazon; invite authors to book clubs; share book reviews on social media; and spread the word on Booktok and Bookstagram. 

It’s the fans, and engaged booksellers, who hand-sell our books and I am forever grateful for the kind souls that have shared ATHENA with their communities.   

Also, I love receiving letters from readers. It’s such an honor to read these notes about grief, healing, connecting with family, and remembering the past. Thank you to everyone who has loved this book. It’s so amazing that my grandmother’s family story is being admired and shared. I think she would be absolutely thrilled and proud.


  1. WOW. Thanks so much for stopping by YAOTL, Colby. I can't wait to get my hands on this book.

    1. It was a pleasure! Thanks for the invite! Hope you love the book!

  2. Thank you, Jen, for these lovely, thoughtful questions.

  3. I would certainly want to read ACADEMY OF THE UNKNOWN


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