For Native American Heritage Month this year, First Nations Development Institute asked Dr. Debbie Reese, Nambé Pueblo, to recommend a list of “must-read” books for kids and teens. Reese is an educator as well as editor and publisher of the American Indians in Children’s Literature website.
Reese explains for ICTMN why children—both Native and non-Native—need to be exposed to this literature. “Most of what kids see in books today are best sellers and classics that stereotype and misrepresent Native people in history. There’s a lot of bias in them. There’s a lot of negative stereotyping and positive stereotyping.
“The books that I recommend in [the First Nations list] are ones that can counter that bias in several ways. One, they’re not stereotypical [depictions of Native people]. Two, most of them are set in the present day, which is important in countering what we see in a lot of children’s and young adult literature, which says that we vanished, we didn’t make it to the present day, and of course we did. So I selected books by Native writers because when teachers are using books by Native writers, or libraries or parents are, they can use present tense verbs in talking about them. So they would say for example, ‘Cynthia Leitich Smith IS a Muscogee Creek writer; she’s a citizen of the Muskogee Creek Nation.’ In doing that, just using that little bit of information, they bring us Native peoples out of that remote past into the present.”
Another important point for teachers, librarians and parents, says Reese, is that “publishers pay attention to sales. It is important for people to buy books by Native writers because that tells publishers that people want more books by Native writers.”
She adds, “The other thing readers should know is that people like myself are using social media to speak up about books. We’ve been doing it for a long time, but in the last year there were enough of us using social media to talk about bad representations in children’s and young adult books that three different publishers withdrew books from publication because Native people and people of color said ‘No, these are not okay.’ That’s never happened before. Publishers have never done that before.
“Publishers don’t do that lightly because they have invested a lot of money in developing a book project and getting it printed and ready to distribute and mail. It’s a huge investment. And to have them decide they really can’t market the book after they’ve already printed it and distributed it and have to recall it and pay people back—that has never happened before.”
The Native American Children’s Literature Recommended Reading List includes 30 books for children from pre-K through grade 12 arranged by age group. Here are 10 books from the list, selected at random.
Wild Berries by Julie Flett (Cree-Métis)
While picking blueberries, Clarence and his grandmother meet ant, spider and fox. Written in English and Cree for the preschool set.
Sweetest Kulu by Celina Kalluk (Inuit)
A beautifully illustrated poem/lullaby by an internationally acclaimed Inuit throat singer. The Huffington Post named this Best Bedtime Book of 2014. It is a USBBY (United States Board on Books for Young People) Outstanding International Book, and it won the 2015 Wordcraft Circle Award.
Cradle Me edited by Debby Slier
Native families supplied these charming photos of babies. Each photo in this board book illustrates a word, such as smile or cry that readers are encouraged to say to the child in his/her own language.
My Heart Fills With Happiness by Monique Gray Smith (Cree, Lakota and Scottish)
A board book illustrated by Julie Flett encourages young children and their caretakers to think about what brings them joy—the sun on your face? Holding the hand of someone you love?
Hidden Roots by Joseph Bruchac (Abenaki)
“Small for his 11 years and the last picked for playground games, Harold doesn’t much care that he’s friendless.” –Library School Journal. Bruchac is the author of more than 120 books for children and adults, among them the best-selling Keepers of the Earth: Native American Stories and Environmental Activities for Children.
The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich (Turtle Mountain Chippewa)
The first volume of the four-volume Birchbark series, The Birchbark House introduces a young Ojibwa girl, Omakayas, who lives on an island in Lake Superior in the mid-19th century.
Indian Shoes by Cynthia Leitich Smith (Muscogee Creek)
Are Indian shoes beautiful beaded moccasins…or hightops with bright orange shoelaces? Heartwarming stories of a Seminole-Cherokee boy and his grandfather.
How I Became a Ghost: A Choctaw Trail of Tears Story by Tim Tingle (Choctaw)
A Choctaw boy tells how he became a ghost able to help those left behind. The story begins in Mississippi in 1830: “I’m ten years old and I’m not a ghost yet. My name is Isaac.”
If I Ever Get Out of Here by Eric Gansworth (Onondaga)
Lewis “Shoe” Blake loves the Beatles and music is the common interest that leads to a friendship that he fears will be at risk if George learns what life on the Tuscarora Indian reservation is really like.
House of Purple Cedar by Tim Tingle (Choctaw)
Set in Indian Territory in pre-statehood Oklahoma, the story is told by Rose in her old age. “The hour has come to talk of troubled times. Though the bodies have long ago returned to dust, too many ghosts still linger in the graveyards. You are old enough. You need to know. It is time we spoke of Skullyville. I was born and raised in the Choctaw town of Skullyville, where I attended New Hope Academy for Girls—till it burned on New Year’s Eve in 1896.”