12 Picture Books That Showcase Native Voices

Children's literature scholar Debbie Reese highlights recent picture books, fiction and nonfiction, that celebrate American Indian heritage.
We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga (Sorell) ©2018 by Frané Lessec

Native people do way more than dance and drum. Native people are activists, artists, and ­astronauts. They are people of nations whose leaders had diplomatic ­negotiations with ­leaders of European and American nations for hundreds of years.

The old saying that “a picture is worth 1,000 words” is particularly important when the only pictures non-Native children see of indigenous peoples are sepia-toned ones set in the past that show us in traditional clothing. If that is all children see, they may come to think of us in a narrow way: as people of the past.

We are—of course—part of the present day, too, and young readers need books like the ones listed here. In words and illustrations, these titles depict Native children and their nations accurately. In the spirit of Rudine Sims Bishop’s “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors” essay, these works can be both mirrors and windows for children. For those who are not Native, the ­following are ­windows onto the lives of Native peoples in the U.S. and Canada. For the Native children and families who visit your libraries, these books are splendid mirrors, ­written and illustrated by Native people who do not shy away from dark histories.

All of the highlighted titles are produced by independent and small ­publishing houses, which are truly doing the work to create quality children’s books with Native and indigenous representation.

Early Childhood

FLETT, Julie.Black Bear, Red Fox: Colours in Cree. illus. by author. Garfinkel. 2017. Board $11.50. ISBN 9781554765218.

Toddler-PreS–Is this a concept book about colors or a book about language? In fact, it is both. It can be used to teach toddlers colors, and it can be used with anyone who is interested in language and its fluidity. There’s a handy pronunciation guide, but the real treasure is the information in “about this book,” where language specialists describe how Cree words change depending on the item being described.

SMITH, Monique Gray.My Heart Fills with Happiness. illus. by Julie Flett. Orca. 2016. Board $9.95. ISBN 9781459809574; pap. $6.95. ISBN 9781459820180.

Toddler-PreS–Indigenous lifeways continue, in spite of the many onslaughts we experienced. With a quiet joy or exuberant happiness, Smith and Flett show indigenous families as they spend time together, walking, cooking, singing, or dancing. A significant dimension to this book is its dedication to indigenous survivors of residential schools. The paperback version will be published in September as a bilingual edition in English and Plains Cree.

VAN CAMP, Richard.We Sang You Home. illus. by Julie Flett. Orca. 2016. Board ISBN 9781459811782; pap. $6.95. ISBN 978145982014.

Baby-Toddler–Flett’s gorgeous images, paired with Van Camp’s spare text, celebrate the creation and birth of a child who is brought home—with song—where the child gets kisses, songs, and teachings. And adults receive something, too—from the little ones they bring into their lives.


Early Elementary

CHILD, Brenda J.Bowwow Powwow. tr. by Gordon Jourdan. illus. by Jonathan Thunder. Minnesota Historical Society. 2018. Tr $16.95. ISBN 9781681340777.

PreS-Gr 2–Stories that Windy Girl’s uncle tells her about their Ojibwe history and culture, and Windy Girl’s experiences at a summer powwow—with her dog, Itchy Boy—come together in a riveting dream sequence. The humor Child’s words and Thunder’s illustrations capture make this book irresistible, and Jourdan’s Ojibwe translations add to its allure.

HERRINGTON, John.Mission to Space. glossary. photos. White Dog Pr. 2016. Tr $19.95. ISBN 9781935684473.

K-Gr 4–On the first page, Herrington declares, “I am Commander John B. Herrington and I am Chickasaw.” Throughout this short autobiography, he uses a few words paired with terrific photographs to talk about being an astronaut. Kids will find the photo of an eagle feather and flute floating inside the International Space Station ­especially awesome.

MARET, Sherri.The Cloud Artist: A Choctaw Tale. illus. by Merisha Sequoia Clark. Roadrunner Pr. 2017. Tr $17.95. ISBN 9781937054748.

K-Gr 5–Indigenous people tell traditional stories rooted in our cultural heritage but we also create new ones, and this is a great example of the latter. As Leona, a much-wished-for Choctaw baby, grows into childhood, she discovers that she has a remarkable gift: Leona can use her hands to move the clouds, shaping them into stories. This bilingual story is told in Choctaw and English.

ORTIZ, Simon.The People Shall Continue. illus. by Sharol Graves. Lee & Low/Children’s Book Pr. 2017. pap. $9.95. ISBN 9780892391257.

Gr 2-5–This is a 40th anniversary edition of Ortiz’s epic history of what came to be known as North America. Unflinching in its depiction of colonization, it ends on the hopeful note that—working together—the peoples of the continent will continue, and that we have to fight the greed and exploitation of the planet, together.

ROBERTSON, David A.When We Were Alone. illus. by Julie Flett. Highwater Pr. 2017. Tr $18.95. ISBN 9781553796732.

K-Gr 3–“Nókom [grandmother], why do you wear so many colours?” That is the first in a series of questions through which a grandmother tells her granddaughter about Canada’s residential schools, and the things she did to survive their oppressive nature. Exquisite, spare illustrations convey a range of emotions on the faces of the children in the book.

ROBERTSON, Joanne.The Water Walker. illus. by author. Second Story. 2017. Tr $16.95. ISBN 9781772600384.

K-Gr 2–The activism of Josephine Mandamin is featured in this matter-of-fact yet utterly delightful account of an Ojibwe grandmother’s determination to do something to protect the Earth’s life-giving water. Ojibwe language and indigenous women appear throughout this inspiring story of standing up to do what is right.

SORELL, Traci.We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga. illus. by Frané Lessec. Charlesbridge. 2018. Tr $17.95. ISBN 9781

K-Gr 2–The first four words of Sorell’s book capture so much. “Cherokee people say otsaliheliga.” This is a book about modern Cherokee people who speak English and Cherokee as they move through the day and year. This work allows readers to see a wide range of Native life, from those who are in the U.S. armed services to those who teach others how to make moccasins and clay pots.

THOMAS, Penny M.Nimoshom and His Bus. illus. by Karen Hibbard. Highwater Pr. 2018. Tr $18.95. ISBN 9781553797081.

PreS-Gr 2–As readers join the Cree children on Nimoshom’s bus going to and from school, they will learn Cree words in this heartwarming and delightful book about the relationship between the man and children on his bus. When they want Nimoshom—which means “my grandfather”— to drive faster, he replies “Mots!”—which means no.

VANDEVER, Daniel W.Fall in Line, Holden! illus. by author. Salina Bookshelf. 2017. Tr $21.95. ISBN 9781893354500.

K-Gr 3–Holden is at a U.S. government boarding school that was designed to force Native children to turn away from their identities and become like White children. Much of that was done by controlling their movements, but at every turn, Holden’s imagination tells us that he was resisting the efforts to change who he is. Vandever’s illustrative style adds another layer of resistance to mainstream expectations of what Native people are like.

Debbie Reese is the founder and publisher of American Indians in Children’s Literature, is tribally enrolled at Nambe Owingeh, and will deliver the May Hill Arbuthnot Lecture at the University of Wisconsin at Madison in spring 2019.


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