If you follow my book lists you know I firmly believe in the power of children’s books to change the world 1)by opening children’s minds to experiences that are not their own; and 2) by reflecting back positive stories about themselves and others. Unfortunately, not all children are represented fairly and accurately, or abundantly in picture books. Historically, Native American picture books have been few and far between and Native American have been not only underrepresented in children’s books, but frequently that representation is racist, either through stereotyping (including so-called “positive” images like the “noble savage”) or by obvious negative imagery.
I don’t think I am perfect when it comes to choosing reading material but I do try to learn and listen to others.
While making this list of Native American picture books I deliberately chose books by Native authors. It is by no means a comprehensive list, but for parents and educators who have not yet made a point of seeking out picture books with positive representations of indigenous people, I hope it will be a good starting point. When you are discussing these books with your children, I encourage you not to label the characters as “Native American” or “Indian” but by their nation, such as “Cree” or “Lenape.”
For anyone who wishes to learn more about the representation of American Indians in children’s books, I highly recommend the blog American Indians in Children’s Literature. Ms. Reese offers her careful analyses of both contemporary and classic books.
Native American Board Books, ages 0 and up
Little You by Richard Van Camp is an adorable board book that is a tender, rhyming love story from mom and dad to their baby.
More: Please also check out Richard Van Camp’s We Sang You Home, and Welcome Song for Babies.
My Heart Fills with Happiness by Monique Gray Smith is a super sweet and wonderful board book perfect for your baby or toddler. It’s also one of the few board books featuring a Native American protagonist. The text celebrates finding happiness in the everyday events and joyful, colorful illustrations.
More: Smith has a new book coming out, You Hold Me Up.
Wild Berries by Julie Flett. A boy and his grandmother collect blueberries in the word. Along the way they observe wildlife from the ants to the elk to the birds. The overall feeling is one of calm mindfulness and the illustrations’ deceptive simplicity adds to that feeling. The spare text is in English, but some of the words are accompanied by their Cree equivalent. A glossary and pronunciation guide is included.
More: I also love Flett’s We All Count: A Book of Cree Numbers.
Native American Picture Books, ages 3 and up
Fry Bread by Kevin Noble Maillard, illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal. This utterly marvelous and cheerful book is a celebration of fry bread and it’s place in Native American family culture. The bouncy, rhythmic verse tells the history of fry bread, its importance in Native American life, how its eaten, enjoyed and what it represents. An end note explains the context further. Highly recommended!
Thunder Boy Jr. by Sherman Alexie is both fun and thought-provoking. Thunder Boy, Jr. wishes he had a normal name, like his sister. And he does not like being called “Little Thunder,” which sounds “like a burp or a fart.” He sets out to pick a new name, perhaps one that reflects one of his great achievements. In the end, he settles on a the perfect name—one that is both his very own and still connects him to his dad.
Thanks to the Animals by Allen Sockabasin, illustrated by Rebekah Raye. During his Passamaquoddy family’s move to their winter home in what is rural Maine, Little Zoo Sap falls off the sled. The local animals care for the frightened boy and keep him warm. When his father, Joo Tum, notices his son is missing, he determinedly searches for the boy. When he finds Little Zoo Sap he takes the time to thank each animal for their protection. That was perhaps my favorite part—that the father didn’t just pick up his kid and go—he was mindful and grateful to the animals!
When the Shadbush Blooms by Carla Messinger and Susan Katz, illustrated by David Kanietakeron Fadden. A Lenape girl reflects on how her experiences throughout the seasons were mirrored generations ago by her ancestors. This mirroring is reflected in the illustrations. For example, a group of traditional Lenape fish from their canoes on one page, and a contemporary Lenape family catches fish with modern fishing poles on the next. What I love about this book is that it doesn’t confine the Lenape traditions to either the past or the present, but demonstrates that they can exist in both. The book includes informative end notes about the Lenape culture, as well as word definitions.
We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga by Traci Sorell. In Cherokee, otsaliheliga expresses gratitude. Author Sorell, a member of the Cherokee nation, takes readers on a journey through the seasons, narrating experiences to be grateful for. The journey is both delightful and peaceful, and the illustrations depict contemporary Cherokee life. Accompanying the English text are occasional words written in Cherokee syllabary, along with a phonetic spelling. A glossary and complete Cherokee syllabary make up the end notes. This book is the perfect November read aloud–don’t miss this special celebration of gratitude and community.
In My Anaana’s Amautik by Nadia Sammurtok, illustrated by Lenny Lishchenko. An inuit toddler narrates the wonderful and utterly comforting experience of being wrapped up in the coziness of an amautik. Their narration describes the experience using sensory language like how it feels and smells. A soft sprinkling of Inuktitut words throughout the text enhances, rather than detracts, from the experience (glossary included) and I’m guess your child will never think of the northern terrain as frozen and barren again.
Native American Picture Books, ages 5 and up
The Water Walker by Joanne Robertson. Native American communities were the first to recognize what humans were doing to the planet and have always played a crucial role in raising awareness about the environment. Every morning an Ojibwe grandmother greets nibi (water) with gratitude. Knowing that unpolluted water will soon be a scarcity, she and a group of women start to walk around the Great Lakes in order to draw attention to the importance of clean water. It takes them seven years to walk around the lakes, but they do not give up. Both the text and the illustrations add sweet humor to this important story.
Jingle Dancer by Cynthia Leitich Smith, illustrated by Ying-Hwa Hu and Cornelius Van Wright. Jenna loves to practice her dance steps as she watches videos of her grandmother dancing and listens to the clinking sound of the jingles. She looks forward to finally being able to join in the jingle dance at the powwow but worries that she won’t have just the right number of jingles for her skirt. This is a heartwarming story that celebrates family and tradition.
Saltypie: A Choctaw Journey from Darkness into Light by Tim Tingle, illustrated by Karen Clarkson is based on the author’s experience moving from the Oklahoma Choctaw county to Pasadena, Texas. Looking backward, the narrator describes his experience, when he was six, learning that his grandmother was blind. I love the intergenerational story of a close, warm family, as well as the narrator’s description of Choctaw life and the explicit acknowledgement in the storytelling of the realities of American Indian life in contrast to stereotyping. Plus, the origin of the term “saltypie” is wonderful!
Crossing Bok Chitto by Tim Tingle, illustrated by Jeanne Rorex Bridges. You will do well to search out more books by Choctaw author, Tim Tingle! A moving story set in pre-Civil War Mississippi in which a Chocktaw girl befriends an enslaved boy and ultimately helps his family to freedom. There is an intense humanity to the characters in this book—while reading I felt strongly that the characters were fully-imagined individuals, something that can be rare while reading picture books.
Stolen Words by Melanie Florence, illustrated by Gabrielle Grimard. I got a little teary eyed when reading this book. (That happens to me more often than you think!) A happy young girl hsome home from school. She walks with her grandfather and asks him if he can tell her the Cree word for “grandfather.” Her grandfather becomes sad and tells her he does not know and then tells her about how, when he was a boy, he was taken to a white school where he wasn’t allowed to speak his Cree language. The next day the girl brings home an Introduction to Cree book and presents it to her grandfather who starts to remember the stolen words. I do think it is important, however, that in spite of the somewhat sweet ending, we remind children that it doesn’t remove the crimes of what the boarding school did to the grandfather.
More: Three more books I liked about the boarding schools that First Nation children were forced to attend are Shin-chi’s Canoe, and Shi-shi-etko, both by Nicola I. Campbell, and When We Were Alone by David Alexander Robertson.
More book lists with Native American stories:
Native American (North American) folktales (not a perfect list – but I am learning and hope to revise in the future!)