November is Native American History Month! Cue the sound of a trumpet heralding something important. I’d like to take the opportunity, with this article, to be able to direct you to books about and by Native peoples. These books matter. You ought to have them. However, don’t confine the use of books by and about Native people—or any other group—to a single day or month. We are here, it must be said, all year-round—just like everyone else. The following works for young adults should be read, displayed, and celebrated in every collection.
Joseph Marshall III’s (Sicanju Lakota) In the Footsteps of Crazy Horse (Abrams, 2015) is a road trip book. In it, a Lakota boy named Jimmy McClean is teased for the blue eyes and light brown hair he inherited from his white grandfather. His Lakota grandfather takes him on a road trip, teaching him about Crazy Horse—who also had light hair. Crazy Horse is known for his leadership during a period in history when his nation was under attack by the United States. In telling Jimmy about it, his grandfather is honest about the brutality, but not gratuitous. In this multilayered journey, Jimmy learns about his people, differing points of view, and his own identity, too. Consider promoting In the Footsteps of Crazy Horse as the school year winds down and kids and their families are thinking about road trips.
Another book that looks at Crazy Horse but is targeted at an entirely different audience is Erika T. Wurth’s (Apache/Chickasaw/Cherokee) Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend (Curbside Splendor, 2014). Set in the present day and aimed at readers at the adult end of YA, Wurth’s book isn’t about Crazy Horse. Instead, the author takes readers into the lives of urban Indians. Sex, drugs, pregnancy, and poverty stand out in this story about 16-year old Margaritte, but beneath all of that is the strong theme of perseverance—a perseverance that illustrates how Native people are very much a vibrant part of today’s society. Add it to readers’ advisory lists for those seeking books with frank depictions of life.
For teens drawn to fantasy and shape-shifters who live among us, hand them the “Feral” series (Candlewick) by Cynthia Leitich Smith (Muscogee Creek). She hooks readers in the first volume, Feral Nights (2013), with sexy characters from her “Tantalize” series (Candlewick). In the second installment, Feral Curse (2014), she introduces us to an Osage character named Jess who gives voice, in the third entry, Feral Pride (2015), to painful discussions Americans are having today about how a nation’s politics and fears can be hurtful to those who are seen as “other.” This is a heavy theme, but in the fast pace of the series and Smith’s gifted prose, the discussion shines a bright light on what is possible—what the youth of our country can bring forward as they move into positions of power and leadership. Include the series in displays about politics and social justice.
Gripping in its storytelling is Aaron Paquette’s (Cree) Lightfinder (Kegedonce Pr., 2014). His is another Native voice that brings Native ways forward in ways that normalize the figures in traditional Native stories. The story Paquette tells is presented in two voices, Aisling and her brother Eric, both of whom have powers that they come to know as the story unfolds. These powers are a given within their Cree community, and these two teens take up survival—not just of self but of the world as Paquette weaves exploitation of resources into an engrossing story hailed by Richard Van Camp, a leading First Nations writer. This is a good one to hand to teens who are interested in fantasy.
Speaking of Van Camp (Dogrib), he continues to enthrall readers of all ages with his prolific stream of stories. His graphic novel, Three Feathers (HighWater Pr., 2015), is about three young men in a community deeply impacted by drugs and violence. When they hurt someone, Flinch, Bryce, and Rupert go through a restorative justice process designed to heal, not punish, those who make bad decisions. The three are sent to live off the land with Elders for nine months. Reluctant at first, they eventually grow and then return home where their actions as caring community members demonstrate the benefits of restorative justice. Share this one with anyone looking for books about redemption.
Three Feathers is one of many outstanding graphic novels and comics Native writers and illustrators are creating for children and young adults. Moonshot: The Indigenous Comics Collection (AH Comics, 2015) is particularly hot right now in Native social media and is a must-have because of the range of stories it includes. Readers can pore over Elizabeth LaPensée’s (Anishinaabe, Metis, Irish) “The Observing,” a steampunk telling of a Haida story, or Arigon Starr’s (Kickapoo) work, “Ue-Pucase: Water Master,” which puts a futuristic spin on a Muscogee Creek story.
Moonshot will introduce readers to the work of other Native writers, too, like David Alexander Robertson (Irish, Scottish, English, Cree), whose graphic novels tackle everything from biographies of First Nations leaders to stories like Sugar Falls: A Residential School Story (High Water Pr., 2012), about boarding schools in Canada. Moonshot can be booktalked and promoted all year long, because graphic novels are super hot right now!
Arigon Starr’s (Kickapoo) stand-alone series, “Super Indian” (Wacky Productions), now spans two volumes and is the rage among Native readers. Fans (and anti-fans, too) of Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight” will delight in this parody of that now 10-year-old series that misrepresented Quileute stories. Starr’s wit and humor sparkle as her characters Hubert (Super Indian) and his best friend General Bear (Mega Bear) take on the bad guys who pass through the Leaning Oak Bingo Hall. Teens who enjoy humorous twists on familiar tales will love Starr’s take on Twilight.
Lisa Charleyboy (Tsilhqot’in) and Mary Beth Leatherdale’s Urban Tribes: Native Americans in the City (2015) delivers the same punch and beauty that their previous volume, Dreaming in Indian (2014, both Annick) did. With its focus on urban Indians, the book pushes boundaries of what most people know about Native peoples, and it gives Native kids lots of possible selves (a term used in psychology that captures what young people think of as options for what they can be). Featuring everything from poetry to short essays, it also includes a handy “By the Numbers” presentation, comparing statistics of Native peoples in the United States and Canada.
I’m excited about all of these books and am looking forward to reading other works by Native writers, such Joseph Bruchac’s (Abenaki) Trail of the Dead (2015), which is a follow-up to his award-winning Killer of Enemies (2013, both Lee & Low), Van Camp’s A Blanket of Butterflies (Portage & Main Pr., 2015), and, new to me, from Australia, Ambelin Kwaymullina’s (Palyku) The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf (Candlewick, 2014).
Debbie Reese (Nambe Pueblo) is the founder and publisher of the “American Indians in Children’s Literature” blog. She holds a PhD in Education from the University of Illinois and an MLIS from San Diego State University. A former schoolteacher and professor, her book chapters, articles, and blog posts are assigned reading in university classrooms in English, Library Science, and Education.
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