Although November is Native American Heritage Month, I hope you will include these Native American middle grade books (and a handful of early chapter books) in your children's reading diet all year long. This list of excellent chapter books by Native authors includes stories of both historical and contemporary life.
Why read Native American Books?
Many non-Native children only learn about First Nations in relation to Thanksgiving, or as "historical" rather than contemporary Nations. As a non-Native myself, I don't pretend to know everything, but that's why I make a concerted effort to listen to Native voices and help my children to understand Native Americans are not just fancy headdresses and powwows.
The Cooperative Children's Book Center at the University of Wisconsin has been tracking the publication of children's books depicting people of color and First/Native Nations for more than a decade. In 2016, 55 out of 3500 books included Native American characters (this number reflects quantity, not the quality of representation). That's up from a low of 22 in 2012. (source)
(Note: book titles below are Amazon affiliate links. If you wish to support independent booksellers, you can find this list on Bookshop. Purchases made through affiliate links may earn commission.)
Native American Chapter Book List
Sisters of the Neversea by Cynthia Leitich Smith. Lily and Wendy are stepsisters, but also friends. One night, during story time with their younger brother, Michael, Peter and the fairy Belle arrive and invite them to Neverland. One sister is eager to go. The other turns down the offer, but Peter's shadow convinces her to follow them. Cynthia Leitich Smith has crafted a truly marvelous re-envisioning of the Peter Pan legend centering around a blended Muskogee Creek and British family. Ages 9 and up.
Ancestor Approved is a diverse collection of short stories by Native American authors. The book is structured around an intertribal powwow at which the authors tell their stories. Tales range from funny and silly to serious. Topics cover an incredible range of issues making this not just a book in which Native kids can see their lives reflected, but a must-read anthology for non-Natives that will promote a deeper understanding of Native life. Ages 9 and up.
Healer of the Water Monster by Brian Young. Nathan is trying to avoid spending time with his dad's new girlfriend, so instead of heading to Las Vegas with his father, he convinces his divorced parents to let him visit his grandmother on the Navajo reservation. In the desert, Nathan encounters Pond, an ailing water monster from the Navajo Creation Story. From there, Nathan begins his epic adventure into the Navajo Third World with the help of the Holy Beings. Young intriguingly blends together Diné mythology and the contemporary world. Fantastic. Ages 9 and up.
The Birchbark House (series) by Louise Erdrich. I adore this series! Erdrich's writing is simply marvelous. This first book takes place on an island in Lake Superior in 1847 where 7-year-old Omakayas, "Little Frog" and her Ojibwa family live. Erdrich describes the daily life and experiences of the Ojibwa as well as their sorrows and joys. Excellent, and a must read for kids. Ages 8 and up.
Children of the Longhouse by Joseph Bruchac. This is a historical novel narrated in alternating viewpoints between Ohkwa'ri and his twin sister Otsi:stia. The siblings are Mohawks living in the 15th century in what is commonly known as upstate New York. Ohkwa'ri tells the elders he heard another boy planning activity that would break a peace accord with a neighboring tribe. His resentful new enemy plans to get his revenge during a game of what we might call lacrosse. There is so much wonderful information about Native American life, culture and traditions in this book. Ages 7 and up.
Indian Shoes by Cynthia Leitich Smith. This early chapter book is a collection of funny stories about a contemporary Seminole-Cherokee boy and his grandfather. I think this book with its charming tales of the loving intergenerational relationship also works very well as a read aloud. Ages 7 and up.
JoJo Makoons, by Dawn Quigley, is an early chapter book series, rather than a middle grade novel. JoJo is a clever, spunky heroine and she makes lots of mistakes–but she's learning! JoJo's narrative voice is irresistible, and Quigley includes wonderful word play and sly humor throughout. The story centers around JoJo's experiences at school and with her friend, Fern, with whom she's having some difficulties. A wonderful new series! Ages 6 and up.
In the Footsteps of Crazy Horse by Joseph Marshall III is two tales. The first is about Jimmy McClean, a boy of mixed Lakota and Anglo heritage, who is taking a vision journey with his Lakota grandfather, Nyles High Eagle. The second is the story of Tasunke Witko, aka Crazy Horse, as told to Jimmy by Grandfather Nyles. The thing I really liked about the book was the emphasis that Native Americans are not just part of the American past. Ages 9 and up.
How I Became a Ghost by Tim Tingle is narrated by Isaac, a Choctaw boy whose family is forced to walk the Trail of Tears. It is quite a remarkable book, mixing historical events with the supernatural, while delving into the cultural identity of the Choctaw. From the beginning of the book, Isaac announces to the reader that he is a ghost, and he foresees the tragedy to come. Yet, Tingle uses humor in surprising and effective ways. I highly recommend reading it aloud or alongside with your child, as adults will enjoy it, and kids will surely have many insightful questions. Ages 8 and up.
Trickster: Native American Tales, A Graphic Collection ed. by Matt Dembicki. My kids and I love trickster tales, which is why I checked this one out. I didn't get a chance to read all of the stories, but my 11 year old did. His verdict was that they were good. I asked if he thought they were appropriate for his age and he said, "Yes, except maybe not two of them." So I'm recommending this for the upper age limit of this list. Ages 11 and up.
Sees Behind Trees by Michael Dorris. This is a beautiful story! Walnut can't see very well but the challenge to earn his adult name includes a test of accuracy with a bow and arrow. His mother teaches him how to see with his ears and his uncle gives him the challenge of seeing what can't be seen. But Walnut learns more about what it means to be adult than just passing a challenge and he earns his new name, "Sees Behind Trees." Set in 16th century North America. Ages 7 and up.
Rain Is Not My Indian Name by Cynthia Leitich Smith. The story begins with the death of 14-year-old Rain's best friend and love interest. Rain, still grieving over the loss of her friend, gets caught up in a controversy over a relative's Indian Camp. She begins taking photographs for a local paper and finds her voice again. Despite some of the serious parts of the book, it also contains humor and examples of positive family relationships. Ages 11 and up.
Eagle Song by Joseph Bruchac. When Danny moves from the Mohawk reservation to Brooklyn he faces teasing by his classmates. His father visits the class and tells the story of he great peacemaker Aionwahta (aka Hiawatha) and Danny takes this as an example to try and be a peacemaker himself. Ages 7 and up.
I Can Make This Promise by Christine Day. This was a terrific read. Edie is part of a loving family, but she knows her mother doesn't like to talk much about her ancestry. Her mother, of mixed Native American heritage, was adopted by white parents. One day, Edie discovers a box of letters signed "Edith" and wonders who her mysterious namesake is. The story follows Edie's journey as she learns the truth and reconnects with her Suquamish/Duwamish heritage. I can't recommend this book enough! Be sure to talk with your kids about how important it is to read stories which counteract harmful stereotypes that are too often reinforced in school. Ages 8 and up.
Indian No More by Charlene Willing McManis, with Traci Sorell. This is an excellent book to start a conversation of the long history of tribal erasure by the United States government and the injustice experienced by Native Americans. In 1954, when the Umpqua tribe was terminated by the government, Regina Petit's family moves from their former reservation in Oregon to Los Angeles. In LA, Regina experiences racism and encounters children of all races for the first time, while trying to come to terms with what it means to be Indian despite being separated from their tribal community and land. Ages 9 and up.
More Native American book lists:
Any further insight into which are more suitable for young kids. My 6.5 yo loves books with Native American protagonists but we haven't read anything contemporary. Is the "teasing" in Eagle Song overly intense?
I don't think it's too much, but I would read Indian Shoes instead and save Eagle Song. But I always recommend if you are worried about the content of a book you preview it first, kids are so individual, it is hard for me to speak directly for your experience.
Please see STARFACE, a great chapter book for young readers. About a Native American boy.
I really liked The Sea in Winter, by Christine Day. I need to pick up I can make you this Promise.
Thank you a great list!
That's a great book, too!