In celebration of Native American Heritage Month and in anticipation of Thanksgiving, here’s a short list of favorite children’s books by Native authors and illustrators that we’ve been enjoying in our family lately.
I’m ashamed to admit that memories of my own preschool years spent dressing in costume (brown paper bags with fringe cut with safety scissors, for heaven’s sake) and reenacting apocryphal stories of meals between so-called Indians and pilgrims in school plays, has me wanting to do better for the next generation. Toward that end, I’ve decided not to focus on trying to salvage a palatable version of the “First Thanksgiving” story, but to celebrate a rich past and present of Native people, by turning to the stories that they tell about themselves.
Note: The books on this list are just a few that we’ve loved for preschool-aged kids (and babbling baby brothers). Please add other favorites that you might have for older kids (or adults!). At the bottom of the post, I’ve included a list of resources for folks navigating conversations about Thanksgiving and Colonialism, as well as the invaluable resources that I used in compiling this list.
LITTLE YOU, words by Richard Van Camp, pictures by Julie Flett (Amazon/IndieBound):
My sister, Cait, gave this to me when I was pregnant with Silas and it’s become one of our family’s favorite picture books. Sweet, simple, and beautifully illustrated, it will make a lifelong Julie Flett fan of anyone lucky enough to read it.
MY HEART FILLS WITH HAPPINESS, words by Monique Gray Smith, pictures by Julie Flett (Amazon/IndieBound):
Featuring more beautiful illustrations by Julie Flett, this story by Monique Gray Smith is a peaceful ode to things that might make a young Native (and non-Native) child happy.
SWEETEST KULU, words by Celina Kalluck, pictures by Alexandra Neonakis (Amazon/IndieBound)
A perfect bedtime book if ever there was one, this story, written by Inuit throat singer, Celina Kalluck, describes the gifts given to a newborn baby by all the animals of the Arctic. Faye adores it.
WHEN WE WERE ALONE, words by David Alexander Robertson, pictures by Julie Flett (Amazon/IndieBound)
A considered take on a tough subject, this picture book tackles the history of Native children and residential schools head on and in terms that even the youngest among us can understand.
YOU HOLD ME UP, words by Monique Gray Smith, pictures by Danielle Daniel (Amazon/IndieBound)
This brightly colored book depicts Native children in the present day with hopeful messages of love and community. A poignant author’s note provides historical context and expresses Gray’s hope that the book might serve as a step toward healing for Native communities whose children suffered at the hands of residential schools.
GIVING THANKS: A NATIVE AMERICAN THANKSGIVING, words by Chief Jake Swamp, pictures by Erwin Printup (Amazon/IndieBound)
We have yet to get our hands on a copy of this book, but it’s been recommended to me often enough that I wanted to include it anyway. It’s a children’s version of a message of gratitude spoken by the Iroquois, or Six Nations and it seems especially lovely as a way to champion the Thanksgiving spirit of gratitude, without rehashing hackneyed tales or Colonial perspectives.
Other things (a list of resources):
American Indians in Children’s Literature: Scholar Debbie Reese maintains this website and it’s my go-to source for thoughtful commentary on books by and about Native people. Her yearly lists of of “best books” were extremely helpful to me in finding titles for this post. (This recent interview with Debbie in Bitch Magazine is worth a read.)
Indigenous Reads by Indigenous Writers: Only 1% of children’s books published in 2016 were written by Native authors. This list of recent titles by Native authors is a joint project of Debbie Reese of American Indians in Children’s Literature (see above), The Conscious Kid Library, Embrace Race, and the Brooklyn Children’s Museum and provides a great starting point for folks seeking additional titles by Native writers.
Oyate: A Native organization working to ensure that Native stories and lives are portrayed honestly and with integrity. Their book reviews are excellent and their perspective on Thanksgiving (along with their book recommendations) is especially important to read.
Raising Race Conscious Children: I found the Thanksgiving perspective offered by Sachi Ferris on her site, Raising Race Conscious Children, to be helpful, especially for encouraging me to have straightforward conversations with my kids.
Finally, compiling this list reminded me of the poem I shared last year on Thanksgiving by Allison Adelle Hedge Coke. In case you missed it then, here it is: America, I Sing You Back.
(When we buy books, we love to support our local bookstores—Stories Bookshop, Books Are Magic, Greenlight Bookstore, and Community Bookstore, to name a few. I’ve provided links below to where you can find these titles online or in your own neighborhood bookstores.)