Finding children’s books written by and featuring Native or indigenous people is, unfortunately, very difficult. We’ve compiled this list to help you find First Nation stories that run the gamut from playful to legendary.
- By Debbie Slier
- Photographs from Native Stock Pictures
- Published in 2012
- For readers 2-4
An easy introduction to the deep traditions surrounding cradle boards, Cradle Me features pictures of real babies held in their tribe’s cradleboard style.
What we love: Each picture shows the traditional construction and decoration of a particular style of cradleboard, and the accompanying text encourages children to incorporate their own language into the reading process.
Things to know: While the last page mentions the varied and complex cradle board styles, it does not differentiate between tribes. We think doing so would have added even more context to the book.
- By Celina Kalluk
- Illustrations by Alexandria Neonakis
- Published in 2013
- For readers 2-6
On the day a baby is born, the wind carries the news across the sea, and visitors from all around the arctic come to bestow gifts upon the child. Richly drawn and poetically written, Sweetest Kulu draws on the Arctic environment and native animals to show the Inuit values of respect and care for their surroundings.
What we love: As an Inuit throat singer, Celina Kalluk brings a lyrical quality to the story. According to the American Indians in Children’s Literature website, “Kulu” is an Inuktitut term of endearment, making this book all the more lovable.
Things to know: For families with newborns, this selection is now available as a board book. What an awesome baby shower gift this would make!
The Elders are Watching
- Written by David Bouchard
- Illustrations by Roy Henry Vickers
- Published in 2012
- For readers 4-7
The colorful, engaging, and beautifully stylized images hide the chilling message within the sparse, lightly rhyming text: humans are destroying the natural world.
What we love: David Bouchard implicates the reader as part of both the problem and the solution. He provides an interesting take on environmentalism that differs from how it is typically approached in children’s books.
Things to know: The book is framed as putting the motivation back on readers to change their ways and help maintain the environment. While this is good, it might make it harder for young readers to access the message if they feel blamed for things outside of their control. Make sure to talk with your little ones about what is their responsibility and what is the responsibility of adults– and don’t be surprised if they hold you accountable!
When We Were Alone
- By David A. Robertson
- Illustrations by Julie Flett
- Published in 2017
- For readers 4-7
As a little girl helps her grandmother in the garden, she asks seemingly innocuous questions, but the answers all lead back to an experience in her grandmother’s youth. What is slowly revealed is a tale of strength in the face of oppression, and a message about finding yourself when other people try to define who you are.
What we love: The story shows how the grandmother preserved her sense of self in the face of government-sanctioned cultural destruction.
Things to know: Residential schools for indigenous children were set up across Canada. They were administered by Christian churches and funded by the national government. Their stated purpose was to assist in the assimilation of these children into Euro-Canadian culture, but in reality, these schools attempted to erase the students’ native cultures and ended up causing deep generational trauma to many children.
Since this book is for younger readers, it does not delve into the more physically and emotionally harmful things that went on within the residential schools. The book leaves the ominous, “They” in “They made us,” and, “They didn’t let us,” unnamed. See I Am Not A Number for a more descriptive book.
How Nivi Got Her Names
- By Laura Deal
- Illustrations by Charlene Chua
- Published in 2016
- For readers 4-8
Little Nivi has five names, but what do they all mean? Learn alongside Nivi as her mother explains the Inuit tradition from which all of her names originate and who they honor.
What we love: Laura wrote this book for her and her partner’s adopted daughter, Nivi. We were thrilled to find this book that shared such a unique story of adoption. One of the sweetest elements within How Nivi Got Her Names is the forward. Written by Nivi’s biological mother, Aviaq Johnston, it describes traditional Inuit adoption practices. This adds poignancy to this wonderful book.
Things to know: Reading the lovely forward is key to understanding the story.
Hiawatha and the Peacemaker
- By Robbie Robertson
- Illustrations by David Shannon
- Published in 2015
- For readers 5-8
Hiawatha and the Peacemaker is based on the true story of Hiawatha, the notable spokesperson for the Peacemaker who is famous for establishing the Iroquois Confederacy. Together they journey to bring peace to the warring nations of the Haudenosaunee (now known as the Iroquois). Told with both eloquence and lyricism, Robertson has adapted the original historical narrative, choosing to focus on Hiawatha’s forgiveness.
What we love: This book comes with a CD featuring Robertson’s own song about Hiawatha and the Peacemaker. Readers also get to see Hiawatha, a male character of color, express his feelings of anger, sadness, hope, love, and forgiveness. Strong female characters, known as the Clan Mothers, are also featured in the story.
Things to know: Note the confusing color symbolism in this book. There are a few places where the Peacemaker mentions how they need the light to drive out the dark– interestingly, the opposing forces are both depicted as clothed in white. What we found even more frustrating was that the antagonist’s bad intentions were described in connection to his physical deformity, which disappear when the Peacemaker drives the “evil” from the antagonist’s body. Keep this in mind as you read this story with your kids. Many superhero movies link disability to an evil nature (e.g., Captain Hook, Darth Vader, Doctor Poison from Wonder Woman, etc.) and it is important to make sure that these messages are balanced against more realistic representations.
- By Jan Bourdeau Waboose
- Illustrations by Brian Deines
- Published in 2000
- For readers 4-8
Two sisters set off on a snowy adventure after drinking their nightly hot cocoa. They journey to see their Skysisters. While the younger sister struggles to stay quiet, irritating her older sister, together they share in the joy of reaching their destination.
What we love: The sisters are Ojibway. While this is not explicitly stated in the book, the values of the Ojibway people take the forefront. The focus of the story is not that they are Ojibway, but that they are excited about seeing their Skysisters.
Things to know: The pronunciation guide is in the front of the book, hidden under the dedications.
Annie and the Old One
- By Miska Miles
- Illustrations by Peter Parnall
- Published in 1971
- For readers 4-8
In-between her time spent going to school, watching the sheep, and tending her family’s garden, Annie steals a few moments to listen to her grandmother’s stories. Sometimes her grandmother seems very young and other times very old, but Annie always enjoys her grandmother’s company. One day, her grandmother delivers a shocking message: when the next rug Annie’s mother is weaving is finished, so too will her grandmother’s own life be done.
What we love: Annie’s struggle with her grandmother’s impending death is very relatable. This book is a good primer to help support a child who has yet to understand the concept of death, or has already experienced the pain of someone close to them dying.
Things to know: The way Annie’s grandmother frames her death may be understandable within the context of Annie’s Navajo culture, but please know that it might seem strange from an outsider’s perspective. It is unclear whether or not the author is of Native descent.
I Am Not a Number
- By Jenny Kay Dupuis and Kathy Kacer
- Illustrations by Gillian Newland
- Published in 2016
- For readers 5-9
When Irene and her brothers are forced into residential schooling, they endure harsh conditions along with verbal and physical abuse. Through all the hardship, Irene remembers her mother’s last words to her. “Never forget home or our ways. Never forget who you are!”
What we love: The fierce determination that Irene’s mom instills in her shows the reader how difficult it is to maintain a sense of self when all grounding influences are stripped away. Irene was Jenny Kay Dupuis’ grandmother, and the last few pages of the book provide more background on the Residential School System along with Irene’s story. “All of the stories — told or untold — are important,” Dupuis writes.
Things to know: This story is heartbreaking; I Am Not a Number is much more explicit than When We Were Alone in dealing with the emotional and physical abuse that took place in government sanctioned residential schools.
Another book that addresses the topic of cultural and identity erasure in residential schools is When I Was Eight, by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton. This book has a double-edged focus in addressing the notion that learning to read English would solve all the main character’s problems. On the one hand, this was a valiant and smart act of self-preservation. On the other, it can be read as an oversimplification or glorification of the non-native education system. For this reason, we decided not to feature this book.
The Last Princess
- By Fay Stanley
- Illustrations by Diane Stanley
- Published in 1991
- For readers 6-9
Summary: Accompanied by elegant and richly drawn pictures, The Last Princess recounts the story of Hawai’i’s last Princess, Ka’iulani, and her fight for the throne.
What we love: Ka’iulani’s strength, poise, power, and eloquence shine from the pages as they simultaneously show the unfairness of colonization.
Things to know: Fay and Diane Stanley are a mother and daughter pair. During WWII, Fay’s husband (and Diane’s father) Burt Stanley, was stationed at Pearl Harbor. This is where their experience with Hawaiian culture comes from. While the book is lovely and well-researched, it is important to remember that the perspective of white Americans in Hawaii will always relate back to the traumas of colonization.
Super Indian Volume One
- Written and Illustrated by Arigon Starr
- Published in 2012
- For readers 8+
Hubert’s nerdy personality hides his second job: being Super Indian! Hubert has to get his act together, before his opponents, the members of Circle of Evil, take over the reservation he defends.
What we love: Hubert’s origin story is weirdly hilarious, while also providing a modern day look at life on the reservation.
Throughout the story, the author shows pride for the reservation alongside with the constant threat of destruction of the remaining Native culture by the conquering and colonizing white man.
Things to know: Some of the things that make this book so interesting can also be points of criticism. Super Indian works through the classic superhero trope effectively by saying, “Yes, Native Americans can be as strong and cool and hot and role model-y as Superman.” This also perpetuates certain not-so-great ideas. First, Super Indian has an unrealistic body. Secondly, there’s a ‘damsel in distress’. And thirdly, Hubert cyberbullies someone, which sends a bad message.
We know this book list is a long one– because great Native and Indigenous books are so hard to find, we simply had to include all our favorites on one list! We hope that you now have some new books to add to your shelves!
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Note: While the U.S. military has occupied Guam for years and is still there, Guam is not socially considered part of the United States. For that reason, we did not include Chamorro kid’s books in this list.
*All photos from Amazon.com