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This selection of books for all ages features accurate and sensitive portrayals of Native American and First Nations people.
In Laura Ingalls Wilder’s classic children’s novel Little House on the Prairie, the phrase “The only good Indian is a dead Indian” appears three times. So this year when the Association for Library Service to Children changed the name of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal to the Children’s Literature Legacy Award, advocates of sensitive and accurate portrayals of Native Americans in literature applauded the shift.
Longtime advocate for Native representation and 2019 Arbuthnot lecturer Debbie Reese notes that “over 70% of the books received at CCBC [Cooperative Children’s Book Center] in 2015 featured white characters, and only 0.9% featured Native characters. Even worse, the books included in that 0.9% are ones with stereotypes and otherwise bad representations.”
All Native children deserve to have books that respect who they are and who their ancestors were. This list below provides a starting point for more authentic representations of American Indians and First Nations people in children’s books. Visit Reese’s website, American Indians in Children’s Literature (https://americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.com), for more detailed analysis and updated lists and reviews.
All around Us. By Xelena González. Illus. by Adriana M. Garcia. 2017. Cinco Puntos, $17.95 (9781941026762). Gr. 1–3.
Inspired by a school assignment to write a time line of her life, González counters the idea of life as a straight line as her young protagonist notices the circles of life with her grandfather in their suburban neighborhood. The family’s mestizo heritage is central to the story, and Garcia’s illustrations highlight the bond between the girl and her grandfather while also underscoring a connection between people and planet.
Bowwow Powwow: Bagosenjige-niimi’idim. By Brenda J. Child. Illus. by Jonathan Thunder. Tr. by Gordon Jourdain. 2018. Minnesota Historical Society, $16.95 (9781681340777). K–Gr. 3.
When a present-day Ojibwe girl and her dog fall asleep at a powwow, the girl dreams of a special powwow where all the participants are dogs. The illustrations present tribally specific scenes of various dogs enacting typical powwow activities, such as dancing and drumming in ceremonial regalia. Written in English and Ojibwe, it is an imaginative but still reverent way to depict the importance of powwow traditions for young readers.
The Christmas Coat: Memories of My Sioux Childhood. By Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve. Illus. by Ellen Beier. 2011. Holiday, $16.95 (9780823421343). K–Gr. 2.
In a story based on the author’s childhood on a Sioux reservation in 1940s South Dakota, young protagonist Virginia dreams of a new winter coat but is dependent on what she can find in the cartons of donated, used clothing. A surprise Christmas donation cheers Virginia in this poignant, heartwarming tale. Expressive watercolor illustrations combine with the narrative to evoke the time and culture.
A Day with Yayah. By Nicola I. Campbell. Illus. by Julie Flett. 2018. Interlink/Crocodile, $17.95 (9781566560412). Gr. 1–3.
In modern-day British Columbia, an Interior Salish girl named Nikki spends the day with her grandmother Yayah learning about edible plants. Campbell’s quiet story weaves botanical facts with respect for the natural world, naming the plants in the Nle’kepmxcín language. See also Campbell’s Shi-shi-etko (2005).
Fall in Line, Holden! By Daniel W. Vandever. Illus. by the author. 2017. Salina Bookshelf, $21.95 (9781893354500). Gr. 1–3.
Growing up listening to Navajo elders’ stories of the lasting trauma of boarding schools inspired Vandever’s joyous book of a boy in school whose imagination takes him from ancient Rome to outer space. The modern-day protagonist, Holden, is expected to obey his teachers, but he lags in the hallway to imagine all kinds of extraordinary things. Any child who feels hemmed in by school rules will relate to this fanciful story about the power of creativity.
We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga. By Traci Sorell. Illus. by Frané Lessac. 2018. Charlesbridge, $17.99 (9781580897723). Gr. 1–3.
Sorell’s book, a 2018 Orbis Picturs Honor award winner, offers readers a look at contemporary Cherokee life as one family participates in ceremonies and festivals through each season of the year. Traditional foods, crafts, and songs are part of the engaging narrative, beginning in the fall (uligohvsdi) with the Cherokee New Year. Back matter includes a description of the various ceremonies, notes, and a page devoted to the Cherokee syllabary.
You Hold Me Up. By Monique Gray Smith. Illus. by Danielle Daniel. 2017. Orca, $19.95 (9781459814479). PreS–Gr. 2.
Dedicated to the children, families, and staff of the Canadian Aboriginal Head Start program, this powerfully evocative picture book depicts gentle scenes of kindness, respect, and community. Daniel’s stylized watercolor paintings show children interacting in positive ways with peers, adults, and family members, and an author’s note sheds light on the abuse suffered by generations of Indigenous Canadians.
Buffalo Bird Girl: A Hidatsa Story. By S. D. Nelson. Illus. by the author. 2012. Abrams, $19.95 (9781419703553). Gr. 5–9.
Buffalo Bird Woman recounts her experiences growing up on the Great Plains of North Dakota in the traditional Hidatsa culture of the nineteenth century. The passing seasons, daily chores, and hunting practices of the tribe are interspersed with such historical events as the smallpox epidemic to paint an informative picture of Buffalo Bird Girl’s life.
Chickadee. By Louise Erdrich. 2012. Harper, $15.99 (9780060577902). Gr. 4–7.
Winner of the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction, Chickadee is the first novel of a new arc in the Birchbark House series about an Ojibwe family in northern Minnesota. In 1866, the small boy Chickadee and his mischievous twin, Makoons, are inseparable and cherished by their extended family. When Chickadee is kidnapped, he draws strength from his avian namesake, who teaches him that small things have great power. See also the sequel, Makoons (2016).
Fatty Legs: A True Story. By Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton. Illus. by Liz Amini-Holmes. 2010. Annick, $21.95 (9781554512478). Gr. 4–7.
This moving account documents the author’s true experiences of labor and cruelty during her two years at the school for Inuit children in Canada’s far north. Desperate to learn to read, eight-year-old Olemaun convinces her parents against their better judgement to let her leave home to go to school. Olemaun’s determination and positive outlook shine through despite her unhappiness, and photos and maps give the story a sense of time and place.
Hiawatha and the Peacemaker. By Robbie Robertson. Illus. by David Shannon. 2015. Abrams, $19.95 (9781419712203). Gr. 2–4.
Robertson recounts the historical story of the Mohawk warrior Hiawatha’s choice of peace over revenge to help unite the five warring Iroquois nations during the fourteenth century. Shannon’s oil paintings expressively capture the tension of the initial peace overture and the tranquility that replaces it. Endnotes and a song written and performed by Robertson underscore the author’s emotional connection to this story.
How I Became a Ghost: A Choctaw Trail of Tears Story. By Tim Tingle. 2013. RoadRunner, $18.95 (9781937054533). Gr. 4–6.
Readers experience the historical tragedy of the Trail of Tears from the perspective of a 10-year-old Choctaw boy. When Isaac and his family are forced to leave their Mississippi homeland in 1830, Isaac begins having visions of ghosts foretelling the deaths that will occur during their journey. The ghosts follow Isaac, providing reassurance and advice that allow him to prepare for his own impending death.
I Am Not a Number. By Jenny Kay Dupuis and Kathy Kacer. Illus. by Gillian Newland. 2016. Second Story, $18.95 (9781927583944). Gr. 2–5.
Based on Dupuis’ grandmother’s childhood experience, this picture book for older readers shines an alarming spotlight on the injustice of Canada’s residential school program. When Couchie and her two brothers are taken from their home on Nipissing First Nation to attend a residential boarding school many miles away, Couchie learns that names are not allowed at this school, and the nuns inflict brutal punishment when she speaks her native language.
In the Footsteps of Crazy Horse. By Joseph Marshall III. Illus. by Jim Yellowhawk. 2015. Amulet, $16.95 (9781419707858). Gr. 4–6.
This novel integrates Lakota history and oral tradition as readers follow Jimmy and his grandfather on a “vision journey,” visiting famous landmarks, monuments, and landscapes integral to the life of the great warrior Crazy Horse. Grandpa Nyles recounts stories about the life of the Lakota hero and the events that shaped him into a powerful leader, including famous battles and standoffs against the white settlers. As the book progresses, Jimmy and readers learn about an important period of American history from the perspective of the Lakota.
The People Shall Continue. By Simon J. Ortiz. Illus. by Sharol Graves. 2017. Lee & Low, $9.95 (9780892391257). Gr. 2–5.
Brought back into print to mark its fortieth anniversary, this self-described “teaching story,” whose mission is to instill a sense of responsibility for life, provides a sobering overview of the history of Native Americans. Beginning with a creation story and continuing through the usurpation of Indian lands, this book provides an honest representation of history.
Unstoppable: How Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Defeated Army. By Art Coulson. Illus. by Nick Hardcastle. 2018. Capstone, $15.95 (9781543504064). Gr. 2–5.
In 1912, star athlete Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School football team defeated Army, the U.S. Military Academy team at West Point. Illustrations reveal the excitement of the game but also show the pain that Native children suffered at the boarding school they were forced to attend. With back matter explaining the more disturbing aspects of the story, this book lauds Jim Thorpe and his career without whitewashing history.
#NotYourPrincess: Voices of Native American Women. Ed. by Lisa Charleyboy and Mary Beth Leatherdale. 2017. Annick, $19.95 (9781554519583). Gr. 9–12.
Charleyboy and Leatherdale have selected art, poetry, and prose created by Indigenous teenage girls and women to dispel the stereotypes and provide alternative ways of looking at the identity, history, and inherited trauma of young Indigenous women. The works offer deeply personal insights and emphasize the damage that ignoring or changing the rich histories of Indigenous people does, especially where women are concerned. See also the pair’s Dreaming in Indian (2014).
Apple in the Middle. By Dawn Quigley. 2018. North Dakota State Univ., $25.95 (9781946163073). Gr. 6–9.
When Apple’s non-Indigenous dad and stepmom send her to Turtle Mountain Chippewa Reservation to stay with her grandparents for the summer, she struggles trying to straddle both worlds. Quigley depicts contemporary reservation life with authenticity and warmth as Apple experiences the bonds of extended family and grapples with what it means to belong.
Give Me Some Truth. By Eric Gansworth. 2018. Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine, $18.99 (9781338143546). Gr. 10–12.
Through alternating perspectives, readers follow the lives of two contemporary teenagers living in a reservation on the outskirts of Niagara Falls. Carson is a high-school senior who dreams of starting his own band with his friend Lewis. Maggi has just moved from the city back to the res and works with her family selling beaded work to tourists, but she longs to create her own art. Gansworth vividly captures the difficulties of reservation life, first love, and teen aspirations. See also Gansworth’s If I Ever Get Out of Here (2013).
Hearts Unbroken. By Cynthia Leitich Smith. 2018. Candlewick, $17.99 (9780763681142). Gr. 9–12.
When the school musical director’s inclusive approach to casting The Wizard of Oz provokes backlash in their mostly white, middle-class Kansas town, Native teenager Louise and love interest Joey cover the story for the school newspaper as their romance develops. But prejudices and hostilities affect everyone in town, especially the cast members at the center of the controversy, including Louise’s little brother, who’s playing the Tin Man.
Killer of Enemies. By Joseph Bruchac. 2013. Lee & Low/Tu, $19.95 (9781620141434). Gr. 9–12.
This fast-paced adventure story centers around an Apache female superhero in a near-future dystopia. Lozen must rely on her wits, tracking skills, and weaponry, drawing strength from her warrior heritage to dispatch monstrous, genetically modified animal survivors of an apocalyptic event. Lozen’s tactics and weaponry are detailed within a cultural framework that fosters respect for the planet and its surviving natural inhabitants.
The Marrow Thieves. By Cherie Dimaline. 2017. Dancing Cat, $14.95 (9781770864863). Gr. 8–11.
In a dystopian future, a young Métis boy as well as a group of First Nations young people and their leader, Miig, survive harsh conditions as they resist the constant threat of being harvested for their dream-carrying bone marrow. Dimaline creates a suspenseful story that imagines Indigenous teens in a dark, postapocalyptic society.
My Name Is Not Easy. By Debby Dahl Edwardson. 2011. Marshall Cavendish, $17.99 (9780761459804). Gr. 7–10.
This National Book Award finalist unflinchingly explores the experiences of Indigenous kids who attended Catholic boarding school. Based on memories of Edwardson’s husband, the book depicts Luke’s Inupiaq homesickness and alienation after leaving his rural Alaska home in 1960 to journey with his two younger brothers to the Sacred Heart School.
Trickster: Native American Tales. Ed. by Matt Dembicki. 2010. Fulcrum, $22.95 (9781555917241). Gr. 8–12.
Twenty-four Native storytellers were paired with comics artists to bring together Native American folklore and the world of comics. These trickster tales are drawn from a variety of Native peoples across North America, so the trickster appears variously as Rabbit, Coyote, and others. Landscapes, clothing, and speech also vary in keeping with distinct traditions to give an authentic view of the trickster in many different guises.
Sonja Cole, a former school library media specialist, is the author of Booktalking around the World: Great Global Reads for Ages 9–14 (2010).
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