Native Perspectives: Books by, for, and about Indigenous People | Great Books

Whether you are a media specialist seeking excellent additions to your collection or titles to recommend, or an educator seeking gold for both remote and in-person learning, you’ll find plenty of options here, with accurate and authentic books by and about Native Americans and First Nations people.

Book art from We Are Water Protectors by Carole Lindstrom
illustration ©2020 by Michaela Goade

 

Our world is experiencing a social and political reckoning. In such turbulent times, literature can serve as a tool of enlightenment and escape. Whether you are a media specialist seeking excellent additions to your collection or titles to recommend, or an educator seeking gold for both remote and in-person learning, you’ll find plenty of options here. Most importantly, the accurate and authentic books here are by and about Native Americans and First Nations people.

According to a Diversity in Children’s Books 2018 infographic, one percent of books published in the United States and Canada in 2018 had content about, or depicted characters with, Native American/First Nations backgrounds. Of that one percent, 40 books were by Native American/First Nations people and 56 were about Native American/First Nations people. This data does not reflect the quality of those representations, only quantity. Many of the books published each year about Indigenous people contain misrepresentations of Native people and cultures. While the number of books by Native American/First Nations authors released by U.S. and Canadian publishers has slowly increased over the past decade, with this past year signaling perhaps a watershed moment, there is a long way to go.

In-person, remote, and hybrid instructional models this year will all yield even less actual teaching time than previous years. To maximize time with students, the titles we use must meet high standard: They must serve as instructional resources, they must be accurate and authentic, and they must be engaging enough to return to time and again as mentor texts.

The featured picture books, board books, and graphic novel are for all ages. These titles showcase beautiful language and a higher vocabulary, and can be used with multiple levels of readers. They also explore prevalent themes and important concepts, which can be used across subject areas.

Additionally, these books transcend standards for pre-K–12 learning. They can be used in reading, writing, and language instruction. Some are appropriate for social studies and even science. They can also serve as mentor texts and touchstones, which provide continuity for students while saving instructional time by using familiar books. The best part? They will ignite curiosity and keep readers engaged.
 

Bowwow Powwow by Brenda J. Child
illustration ©2018 by Jonathan Thunder. 

Picture Books for All Ages

CHILD, Brenda J. Bowwow Powwow. illus by Jonathan Thunder. tr. from Ojibwe by Gordon Jourdain. Minnesota Historical Society. 2018. ISBN 9781681340777.
Gr 2-4 –This recipient of the 2020 American Indian Youth Literature Award for Picture Books is an Ojibwe dual-language celebration of “the history of Ojibwe song and dance, past and present,” according to the author’s note. Intriguing illustrations that blend historical with contemporary powwows depict Windy Girl, her uncle, and her dog Itchy Boy dancing, enjoying food, and bonding with friends at a summer powwow. Windy Girl falls asleep that night and dreams of a different powwow, the kind Itchy Boy would love.

FLETT, Julie. Birdsong. illus. by author. Grey­stone Kids. 2019. ISBN 9781771644730.
Gr 2-7 –Set against the backdrop of the four seasons and sprinkled with Cree words, this gorgeous tale—and 2020 American Indian Youth Literature Honor Award winner for Picture Books—follows young Katherena as she and her mother move from the city to the country, and as she and Agnes, her elderly neighbor, forge an unusual friendship. How Katherena deals with Agnes’s health is just one of the lessons she learns throughout the year.
 

Fry Bread by Kevin Noble Maillard
illustration ©2019 by Juana Martinez-Neal 

LINDSTROM, Carole. We Are Water Protectors. illus. by Michaela Goade. Roaring Brook. Mar. 2020. ISBN 9781250203557.
Gr 2-4 –This multilayered picture book was written in support of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, who protested the Dakota Access Pipeline. It can be used on a surface level with younger children and on a deeper, more informed level with older students. The author’s and illustrator’s notes provide valuable information, and there is a pledge children can sign to protect the environment.

MAILLARD, Kevin Noble. Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story. illus. by Juana Martinez-Neal. Roaring Brook. 2019. ISBN 9781626727465.
Gr K-4 –Fry bread is so much more than a food! It is shape, sound, color, flavor, time with family, and tradition. Weaving history and the strength of Native people into the story of fry bread, this picture book showcases Indigenous diversity of appearance and nation. Don’t miss the author’s note and recipe in the back.

PEACOCK, Thomas. The Forever Sky. illus. by Annette S. Lee. Minnesota Historical Society. 2019. ISBN 9781681340982.
Gr 3-5 –So many Native people share stories within families, clans, and tribes to strengthen ties with each other and to ensure the stories will live on through generations. This beautiful picture book follows that tradition for the Ojibwe, using a traditional story-within-a-story structure to tenderly answer young Niigaanii’s question: Where does Grandmother’s spirit go when it leaves this world? Lee’s stunning illustrations depict the northern lights and all the relatives dancing in the circle of the Forever Sky. A 2020 American Indian Youth Literature Honor Award winner for Picture Books, this is an exceptional book that deals deftly, comfortingly, and culturally with a challenging time for young people.

ROBERTSON, Joanne. The Water Walker. illus. by author. tr. from Ojibwe by the author. Second Story. 2019. ISBN 9781772601008.
Gr 3-8 –This is the new dual-language edition of the story of Josephine Mandamin, an Ojibwe grandmother, and the Water Walkers, who walked around the Great Lakes to raise awareness of the need to protect the water. With contemporary references and illustrations, Robertson creates a call to action for environmental issues.

SORRELL, Traci. At the Mountain’s Base. illus. by Weshoyot Alvitre. Penguin/Kokila. 2019. ISBN 9780735230606.
Gr K-5 –Native American women and men have served at high rates in all branches of the military. A 2020 American Indian Youth Literature Honor Award winner for Picture Books, this lovely poem is a tribute to them and their loved ones back at home. Glimpses of daily life through the lens of a World War II pilot and a fictional Cherokee Nation family illuminate this era in history.

VAN CAMP, Richard. Kiss by Kiss. illus. by author. Orca. 2018. ISBN 9781459816213.
Gr PreS-K –This delightful rhyming counting book in Cree and English will have the youngest learners asking for it over and over. Beautiful close-up photography of faces will entrance, while the rhythmic words will pull kids in.

VAN CAMP, Richard. Welcome Song for Baby. illus. by author. Orca. 2018. ISBN 9781459820104.
Gr PreS-K –This dual-language book is a poem, a lullaby, a declaration, and a pledge to every child reader. Lyrical language describes the value of each child, each identity, while exquisite photos capture the diverse beauty of babies and adults.

VANDEVER, Daniel W. Fall in Line, Holden! illus. by author. Salina Bookshelf. 2017. ISBN 9781893354500.
Gr K-12 –This is one of those rare, multilayered picture books that can be used with all ages of students, from the tiniest readers to high schoolers. On the surface, younger readers will delight in the imaginative Holden’s impatience for recess and difficulty standing still in line. But the text serves as an allegorical tool to open discussions of Native boarding schools, a “grim period in American history.” From the first paragraph to illustrations of mouthless students, this book is a treasure complex enough for secondary students and accessible and engaging for primary students.

 

Graphic Novel

AKULUKJUK, Roselynn & Danny Christopher. Putuguq and Kublu and the Qalupalik! illus. by Astrid Arijanto. Inhabit Media. 2019. ISBN 9781772272284.
Gr 1-3 –This graphic novel for newly independent readers will have students in stitches as Putuguq’s imagination runs away with him. He and his big sister, Kublu, listen to their grandfather’s story of the qalupaliit—strange creatures that live under the sea ice and snatch children. Grandpa tells them to be extra careful on their way and listen to the sea ice. Told with humor, modern-day relevance, and traditional story-within-a-story structure, this gem uses an attractive graphic novel format to show a grandfather’s care to keep children safe and aware as they cross the ice.


Kara Stewart, an enrolled member of the Sappony Tribe, is a literacy coach and reading specialist in the public schools of Orange County, NC.

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