Indigenous People’s Day celebrates the native populations of North America in protest against the celebration of Christopher Columbus—a genocidal racist—on Columbus Day. So instead of reading books that celebrate a man falsely claimed as “discovering America” with our children, let’s celebrate the millions of indigenous Americans who had already settled the country by reading picture books by and about Native American life.
When I started my research for this post, I immediately went to my library’s website to request my favorite Native American children’s books from childhood. I was horrified when I discovered book after book written by white authors, mostly men. Every. Single. Book. While there’s not necessarily anything wrong with books written outside the author’s cultural experiences—given that the author does their research—it becomes a problem when those books are the ones that predominantly get published and receive the awards and accolades over #ownvoices books.
I’m also very aware that I am a white blogger writing about #ownvoices Native American children’s books. Because of that, and because it’s important to support #ownvoices bloggers as well as authors, I encourage you to check out Debbie Reese’s phenomenal blog: American Indians in Children’s Literature. Debbie Reese has compiled an amazing list of books and reviews that she constantly updates. The American Indian Youth Literature Award is also an amazing place to find new #ownvoices Native American books to read.
10 #OWNVOICES NATIVE AMERICAN CHILDREN’S BOOKS
Too often we think of Native Americans in the past. These ten picture books depict Native Americans in the present. I included tribal information for the authors and illustrators when I could find the information.
All Around Us BY XELENA GONZALEZ, ILLUSTRATED BY ADRIANA GARCIA
A lovely story about the relationship between a little girl and her grandfather, as he teaches her about the circles that make up existence. The vibrant illustrations depict their relationship as they go about their everyday routine in vivid colors and swirls. This picture book is so beautiful and touching and award-worthy. Look at that cover! Xelena Gomex is from the Tap Pilam Coahuiltecan Nation.
Grandmother’s Pigeon BY LOUISE ERDRICH, ILLUSTRATED BY JIM LAMARCHE
While Louise Erdrich’s more well-known adult fiction tends to be dark and complicated, her children’s books are delightful and still rich in character. In Grandmother’s Pigeon, at a beach trip a girl’s grandmother rides away on the back of a porpoise to go traveling the world. Once back home, bird eggs hatch into extinct passenger pigeons, in grandmother’s room, of course. This picture book is a bit denser than most, so I recommend it for older kids, in the 7–8 year old range. Louise Erdrich is an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians.
First Laugh–Welcome, Baby! BY ROSE ANN TAHE AND NANCY BO FLOOD, ILLUSTRATED BY JONATHAN NELSON
I can’t even begin to describe how perfect and adorable this book is. It didn’t turn up in my internet research, but when I went to work a few days ago (at a bookstore), the children’s book director had set this aside for me! And it was love at first sight. In Navajo custom, a baby celebrates becoming a member of the Navajo tribe on the day of its first laugh. In this picture book, a Navajo family eagerly await their new baby’s first laugh. I love that the illustrations depict the family in modern settings and keeping Navajo traditions. Rose Ann Tahe was born into the Naaneesh’t’ezhi Tachii’nii nish’li (The Charcoal Streaked Division of the Red Running Into the Water Clan), born for Ashiihi bashish’chiin (Salt People Clan). Jonathan Nelson is Navajo, of the Kiiyaa’áanii (Towering House Clan) and Naakai Dine’é (Mexican Clan). Rose Ann Tahe died before the book could be published, and Nancy Bo Flood finished it for her.
The Good Luck Cat BY JOY HARJO, ILLUSTRATED BY PAUL LEE
The cat Woogie has had a super hard life and already used up eight of his nine lives. But now he has the perfect little girl and family for owners—what could go wrong? Joy Harjo is an amazing poet, and while she writes this picture book in prose, her lyrical writing skills still show. The dark-toned illustrations are vivid and realistic, and perfectly capture the mischievous and lovable Woogie. Joy is a member of the Mvskoke Nation.
Jingle Dancer BY CYNTHIA LEITICH SMITH, ILLUSTRATED BY YING-HWA HU AND CORNELIUS VAN WRIGHT
I first came across this book in college, when I was researching for a presentation on the necessity of teaching with own voices Native American literature in elementary schools (back when hashtags weren’t a thing). It’s just as charming and special as a reread. In Jingle Dancer, Jenna dreams of dancing the jingle dance, just like her grandmother. But she doesn’t have any jingles for her dress. By helping her friends and relatives, she acquires enough jingles to dance. This book celebrates helping others in addition to honoring Native American culture. Cynthia Leitich Smith is a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.
When the Shadbush Blooms BY CARLA MESSINGER AND SUSAN KATZ, ILLUSTRATED BY DAVID KANIETAKERON FADDEN
When the Shadbrush Blooms tells side-by-side stories of two Lenape tribe girls—one from the past, one from the present. In detailed illustrations, it shows how both families structure their lives around the changing seasons. Carla Messinger is a descendant of the Lenape (Delaware) Indians (Turtle Clan). Mohawk David Kanietakeron Fadden is from the Wolf Clan.
We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga by Traci Sorell, Illustrated by Frané Lessac
This book celebrates the seasons and all the things to be thankful for in each season. Otsaliheliga is a Cherokee word used to express gratitude, and the author is a member of the Cherokee nation. “When cool breezes blow and leaves fall, we say ostaliheliga” the book opens. The illustrations depict contemporary Native Americans enjoying every season. We like to read this one around Thanksgiving, though it’s always a good time to discuss gratitude.
We Are Water Protectors by Carole Lindstrom, Illustrated by Michaela Goade
In We are the Water Protectors, Metis/Ojibwe author Carole Lindstrom writes from a child’s perspective. The child recalls what she’s learned about the sacredness of water, and then how the black snake (oil pipelines) threatens the water. She vows to take a stand to protect the water. In the author’s note, Lindstrom discusses how the origin of this story comes from the Standing Rock protest in 2016. The prose is simple and sparse, making it a great read for younger children, and with older children, you would be able to discuss metaphors in addition to the importance of water preservation and environmental activism. The illustrations by Tlingit and Haida artist Michaela Goade are stunning. Despite having seen images from the book before reading it, I was unprepared for its beauty. My two year old especially loves the illustration of the fish in the narrator’s hair, ha!
Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story by Kevin Noble Maillard, Illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal
Fry Bread opens with a Native American family and their friends preparing a meal together, which of course includes fry bread. Fry bread then becomes a broader metaphor: “Fry bread is art / Sculpture, landscape, portrait / Our daily craft / Shared from teacher to student / A cycle of heritage and fortune.” It’s a gorgeous book that celebrates food and the interplay between food and culture. The author Kevin Noble Maillard is a member of the Seminole Nation.
Hungry Johnny BY CHERYL KAY MINNEMA, ILLUSTRATED BY WESLEY BALLINGER
This is the only book on the list I haven’t read. I ordered it from the library and it has yet to come in. But it looks adorable, and I am also hungry and like food. Cheryl Kay Minnema is of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe.
What are your favorite #OwnVoices Native American picture books?
A version of this post was originally published on Book Riot.