Strategies for Teaching Seven Native-Centered Books to K-12 Students

Use these instructional suggestions while reading these titles by Native authors about tribal nations.

With a growing number of fantastic Native-centered books being published and available today, I am hopeful that we are headed toward a renaissance of Native writers’ works being used as a matter of course in schools, from kindergarten through college. Certainly, with increasing awareness of social and racial justice, many librarians and teachers are using Native-centered books in their instruction, and not just for cultural learning or social studies.

Native authors, writing about their own cultures, bring an accuracy and authenticity to their work that is hard for outsiders to replicate. With that in mind, the following books are all written by Native authors, about their own tribal nations.

Suggested instructional uses assume that teachers and media specialists, prior to or upon the first reading, have set the scene for context, and will return to the book as mentor texts to teach targeted instructional goals.

Picture Books

CHILD, Brenda. Bowwow Powwow. Minnesota Historical Society. 2018.

Bowwow Powwow is an Ojibwe bilingual book. Windy Girl and her dog Itchy Boy go to a powwow with her uncle. She falls asleep listening to the drums and dreams about another powwow that is the same­¾and different. This engaging story lends itself to the study of making inferences:the text tells only part of the story; the reader must infer the rest from the vibrant illustrations. It’s perfect for thinking through questions such as, “How do the illustrations support or explain the text?” For older students, reading and analyzing Bowwow Powwow alongside Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Jingle Dancer would be a great lesson in comparing and contrasting texts and authors’ approaches to similar topics.

FLETT, Julie. Birdsong. Greystone Kids. 2019.

Birdsong is an excellent personal narrative writing mentor text for the topic of an important person in a student’s life. Through the seasons, young Katherena shares her thoughts about moving to a new home and getting to know her new friend next door, Agnes, an older woman. Beautiful language helps the reader visualize the story centered around Katherena and Agnes’s friendship. As the seasons change and Agnes grows weaker, Katherena begins to realize the deep impact Agnes has made on her.

VANDEVER, Daniel W. “Fall in Line, Holden!” Salina Bookshelf. 2017.

Vandever’s book can be used on several levels. At the primary level, this title is great for discussing a character’s feelings and actions: Young Holden has a difficult time adhering to his school’s expectations of walking silently in a straight line down the hall. Students will relate to Holden’s inability to resist lingering with his imagination at each room he passes on the way to recess. This book is also deceptively well suited to high school students. While it does not portray Indian boarding schools, it provides an allegorical tool to open discussions of these schools, a “grim period in American history,” as Vandever says in his author’s note. From the first packed paragraph to illustrations of mouthless students, this book is a treasure that is complex enough for secondary students, and accessible and engaging for elementary students. It prompts critical thinking around the question: What is the author really talking about?

Middle Grade

MARSHALL, Joseph III. In the Footsteps of Crazy Horse. Abrams. 2015.

Jimmy McClean, a Lakota boy, is teased at school because he doesn’t “look Indian.” Nyles, his grandfather, takes him on a road trip through the contemporary Rosebud Sioux reservation, stopping at points of historical significance in the life of another Lakota with light brown hair, Crazy Horse. With story-within-a-story structure, readers learn historical information about the area and events during the time of Crazy Horse along with Jimmy. While this book can certainly be used for social studies discussions of historical Native events and perspectives, it also lends itself well to studying Jimmy’s character growth as he learns his tribe’s history and about Crazy Horse from his grandfather, and ultimately becomes more comfortable in his own skin.

Young Adult

GANSWORTH, Eric. Give Me Some Truth. Arthur A. Levine. 2018.

High school senior Carson Mastick wants to start a Native rock band, but one thing after another gets in the way. Fifteen-year-old Maggi Bokoni wants to make her own kind of beadwork instead of the traditional style her mother wants her to make and sell, and strives to fit in after moving back to the reservation. Richly developed characters Carson, Maggi, and their friend Lewis navigate love, racism, and rock ‘n’ roll in alternating chapters that facilitate analysis of how an author develops and contrasts the points of view of different characters or narrators. Give Me Some Truth also lends itself to teaching theme..

QUIGLEY, Dawn. Apple in the Middle. North Dakota State University. 2018.

Apple in the Middle gives a wonderful glimpse into Turtle Mountain Ojibwe life and culture as misfit Apple Starkington is packed off to spend the summer with her Native relatives on the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation for the first time. Apple feels stuck in the middle of everything—her parents, the kids at school, her heritage—as if she doesn’t belong anywhere. Her journey of healing and connection to her tribe and family makes a great character study as Apple grows and comes to terms with herself, her deceased mother, and her heritage.

SMITH, Cynthia Leitich. Hearts Unbroken. Candlewick. 2018.

This novel gives a refreshingly realistic depiction of contemporary Native people and the issues they may face, from stereotypes to racism. Muscogee teen Louise navigates her mostly white high school and suburban town through two boyfriends, the journalism club, and her brother’s involvement in the problematic school play. Like most contemporary Native people, Lou’s life is complicated by identity issues—when to speak up, when to stand her ground, and when to persevere. Understanding issues that other cultures may face is a lesson it itself. In addition, Smith has woven several story lines together underpinned with several possible central messages, making this an ideal text to both analyze how complex characters develop, interact with others, and advance the plot or theme, and also to determine and analyze the development of two or more central ideas over the course of the text.

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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