NATIVE AMERICAN PICTURE BOOKS FOR CHILDREN
If you frequent my book lists, you are aware of my strong belief in the ability of children’s literature to affect social change. 1) By exposing kids to perspectives outside of their own, and 2) By reflecting encouraging tales about oneself and others. Unfortunately, not all children are properly and appropriately depicted in picture books, nor are they featured often. Native Americans and Indigenous Peoples have historically been underrepresented in children’s literature. Usually, that depiction is racist, either via stereotyping (such as the use of the “noble savage” or other purportedly “good” images) or by using overtly derogatory imagery.
I purposefully selected books by Native writers while compiling this collection of Native American children’s picture books, and it is by no means an exhaustive list. Still, I think it will serve as a useful beginning point for parents and educators who have not yet made it a priority to look for picture books with positive depictions of Indigenous Peoples. I urge you to use particular Nation names, such as “Diné,” “Cree,” or “Lenape,” wherever feasible while talking to your kids about these books.
I heartily suggest the blog American Indians in Children’s Literature to anybody who wants to learn more about how American Indians are portrayed in children’s literature. Ms. Reese delivers her thorough evaluations of both recent and classic literature.
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Little You by Richard Van Camp is a sweet board book that tells the baby’s parents’ love story in rhyming verse.
My Heart Fills with Happiness by Monique Gray Smith is an adorable board book that’s ideal for your baby or toddler. Additionally, it’s one of the rare board books with a Native American lead character. The poem, illustrated in bright, happy colors, promotes finding satisfaction in routine activities.
Wild Berries by Julie Flett. In the woods, a youngster and his grandma go picking blueberries. They see fauna along the road, including ants, elk, and birds. The deceptive simplicity of the drawings contributes to the overall sense of peaceful focus. The sparse text is written in English. However, some words are translated into Cree. There is also a glossary and pronunciation guide.
NATIVE AMERICAN PICTURE BOOKS, AGES 3 AND UP
Fry Bread by Kevin Noble Maillard, illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal. A celebration of fry bread and its significance in Native American family tradition, this book is simply wonderful and upbeat. The upbeat, rhythmic stanza describes the origins of fry bread, its significance in Native American culture, how it is consumed, what it tastes like, and what it stands for. The background is further explained in the end note. Highly recommended!
Thunder Boy Jr. by Sherman Alexie is entertaining and stimulating. Thunder Boy Jr. wishes he had his sister’s preference for a common name. Additionally, he dislikes the name “Little Thunder,” which he claims “sounds like a burp or a fart.” He chooses a new name, maybe one that honors one of his greatest accomplishments. He finally decides on the ideal name—one that is both uniquely his own and yet connects him with his father.
Thanks to the Animals by Allen Sockabasin, illustrated by Rebekah Raye. Little Zoo Sap tumbles from the sled as his Passamaquoddy family travels to their winter residence in what is rural Maine. The neighborhood animals give the scared kid warmth and care. When his son Joo Tum goes missing, his father Joo Tum searches fervently for him. He takes the time to express gratitude to each animal for providing safety when he discovers Little Zoo Sap. The fact that the father was thoughtful and appreciative of the animals rather than just picking up his child and leaving was maybe my favorite part.
When the Shadbush Blooms by Carla Messinger and Susan Katz, illustrated by David Kanietakeron Fadden. A Lenape girl thinks back on how her ancestors’ seasonal experiences were similar to what she was going through back then. The drawings depict this mirroring. For instance, on one page, a traditional Lenape tribe catches fish from their canoes, whereas on the next page, a modern Lenape family uses fishing poles to catch fish. This book’s ability to show how the Lenape traditions may remain in both the past and the present is what I find so appealing about it. The book’s end notes include useful information on Lenape culture and word meanings.
We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga by Traci Sorell. Otsaliheliga means thanks in Cherokee. The Cherokee author Sorell takes readers on a trip through the seasons while sharing experiences to be thankful for. The drawings portray modern Cherokee life, and the voyage is both enjoyable and calm. Occasional words written in Cherokee syllabary with a phonetic spelling are included alongside the English text. The end notes consist of a dictionary and a comprehensive Cherokee syllabary. Don’t miss this unique celebration of appreciation and community; this book is the ideal November read-aloud.
In My Anaana’s Amautik by Nadia Sammurtok, illustrated by Lenny Lishchenko. A little Inuit child describes the beautiful and soothing feeling of being wrapped in an amautik. The narrative explains the encounter using sensory language, describing things like how the amautik feels and smells. A little sprinkle of Inuktitut words throughout the text contributes to the experience rather than detracts from it (glossary included). Your youngster may never see the northern landscape as freezing and lonely again.
NATIVE AMERICAN PICTURE BOOKS, AGES 5 AND UP
The Water Walker by Joanne Robertson. Native American cultures were the first to notice the damage people were causing to the environment, and they have always been instrumental in promoting environmental awareness. A grateful Ojibwe grandmother welcomes nibi (water) each morning. She and a group of ladies began to trek around the Great Lakes to raise awareness about the value of clean water since they were aware that it would soon become scarce. They persevere even though it takes them seven years to trek around the lakes. This significant tale is made sweetly comedic by the words and the graphics.
Jingle Dancer by Cynthia Leitich Smith, illustrated by Ying-Hwa Hu and Cornelius Van Wright. Jenna enjoys practicing her dance moves as she sees recordings of her grandma dancing and hears the jingles clinking together. She is excited to finally be able to participate in the jingle dance at the powwow, but she is concerned that she won’t have enough jingles for her skirt. This is a touching tale that honors tradition and family.
Saltypie: A Choctaw Journey from Darkness into Light by Tim Tingle, illustrated by Karen Clarkson, is based on the author’s own experience migrating to Pasadena, Texas, from Choctaw county in Oklahoma. The narrator recalls his reaction when he discovered his grandma was blind when he was six years old. Along with the narrator’s portrayal of Choctaw life and the obvious acknowledgment in the narration of the reality of Indigenous living in contrast to stereotypes, I like the intergenerational tale of a close, loving family. Additionally, I love how the phrase “salty pie” came to be!
Crossing Bok Chitto by Tim Tingle, illustrated by Jeanne Rorex Bridges, is an emotional tale of friendship and family independence that takes place in pre-Civil War Mississippi and centers on a Chocktaw girl who befriends an enslaved boy. The characters in this book had a great sense of humanity; as I read, I had a strong impression that they were all fully realized people, which is unusual when reading picture books.
Stolen Words by Melanie Florence, illustrated by Gabrielle Grimard. As I read this novel, I found myself becoming a bit teary. (That occurs to me more often than you may believe!) A joyful little girl asks her grandpa to teach her the Cree word for “grandfather” as they stroll around. Her grandpa expresses sadness and admits that he is unsure before telling her about how, as a youngster, he was sent to a white school where he was forbidden from using his Cree language. The daughter provides her grandpa with an introduction to Cree’s book the next day, and he begins to recall the words taken. Despite the relatively happy conclusion, I believe it is crucial to educate kids that the crimes committed by the boarding school against the grandpa still stand.