Only 1% of the children’s books published in the U.S. in 2016 featured Indigenous characters, and even fewer (1/4 of the 1% = 8 books total) were written by Indigenous authors.
“Most of what kids see in books today are best sellers & classics that stereotype & misrepresent Native people in history. There’s a lot of bias in them. The books that I recommend are ones that can counter that bias in several ways. One, they’re not stereotypical. Two, most of them are set in the present day, which is important in countering what we see in a lot of children’s & young adult literature, which says that we vanished, we didn’t make it to the present day, and of course we did.” -Debbie Reese, Nambe Pueblo, of American Indians in Children’s Literature
Indigenous people are very much a part of today’s society. With their stories, Indigenous writers share the range of their lives, past and present, and we hope that you’ll embrace and share their stories. This list of 14 recommended children’s books by Indigenous writers and illustrators was curated by The Conscious Kid Library and American Indians in Children’s Literature, in partnership with Brooklyn Children’s Museum.
You Hold Me Up by Monique Gray Smith, illustrated by Danielle Daniel: This vibrant picture book encourages children to show love and support for each other and to consider each other’s well-being in their everyday actions. Award-winning author Monique Gray Smith wrote You Hold Me Up to prompt a dialogue among young people, their care providers and educators about reconciliation and the importance of the connections children make with their friends, classmates and families. This is a foundational book about building relationships, fostering empathy and encouraging respect between peers, starting with our littlest citizens. Ages 4–8.
When We Were Alone by David A. Robertson, illustrated by Julie Flett: When a young girl helps tend to her grandmother’s garden, she begins to notice things that make her curious. Why does her grandmother have long, braided hair and beautifully colored clothing? Why does she speak another language and spend so much time with her family? As she asks her grandmother about these things, she is told about life in a residential school a long time ago, where all of these things were taken away. When We Were Alone is a story about a difficult time in history, and, ultimately, one of empowerment and strength. Ages 4–8.
You are mighty
you are small
You are ours
Little You by Richard Van Camp, illustrated by Julie Flett: Richard Van Camp, internationally renowned storyteller and bestselling author, has partnered with award-winning illustrator Julie Flett to create a tender board book for babies and toddlers that celebrates the potential of every child. With its delightful contemporary illustrations, Little You is perfect to be shared, read or sung to all the little people in your life — and the new little ones on the way. Ages 0–5.
Sweetest Kulu by Celina Kalluk, illustrated by Alexandria Neonakis: A lyrical lullaby imbued with traditional Inuit beliefs, this bedtime poem written by internationally acclaimed Inuit throat singer Celina Kalluk describes the gifts bestowed upon a newborn baby by all the animals of the Arctic. Lyrically and lovingly written, this visually stunning book is infused with the Inuit values of love and respect for the land and its animal inhabitants. Ages 3–7.
My Heart Fills With Happiness by Monique Gray Smith, illustrated by Julie Flett: The sun on your face. The smell of warm bannock baking in the oven. Holding the hand of someone you love. What fills your heart with happiness? This beautiful board book, with illustrations from celebrated artist Julie Flett, serves as a reminder for little ones and adults alike to reflect on and cherish the moments in life that bring us joy. International speaker and award-winning author Monique Gray Smith wrote My Heart Fills with Happiness to support the wellness of Indigenous children and families, and to encourage young children to reflect on what makes them happy. Ages 0–5.
I Am Not A Number by Jenny Kay Dupuis and Kathy Kacer, illustrated by Gillian Newland: When Irene is removed from her First Nations family to live in a residential school, she is confused, frightened and terribly homesick. She tries to remember who she is and where she came from despite being told to do otherwise. When she goes home for summer holidays, her parents decide never to send her away again, but where will she hide and what will happen when her parents disobey the law? I Am Not A Number is a powerful story of resistance, resilience, family and identity. Ages 7–11.
Hiawatha and the Peacemaker by Robbie Robertson, illustrated by David Shannon: Born of Mohawk and Cayuga descent, musical icon Robbie Robertson learned the story of Hiawatha and his spiritual guide, the Peacemaker, as part of the Iroquois oral tradition. Now he shares the same gift of storytelling with a new generation. Hiawatha was a strong Mohawk who was chosen to translate the Peacemaker’s message of unity for the five warring Iroquois nations during the 14th century. This message not only succeeded in uniting the tribes but also forever changed how the Iroquois governed themselves — a blueprint for democracy that would later inspire the authors of the U.S. Constitution. Ages 5–10.
Sharing Our World: Animals of the Native Northwest Coast: The images and text in this book are the work of First Nations and Native artists from communities throughout the Pacific Northwest. Through their art and words, each artist has shared the importance of their personal and cultural relationship to the natural world. Cultural meanings are provided from the Nuxalk, Namgis, Coast Salish, Kwakwaka’wakw, Haisla, Heiltsuk, Haida, Bella Bella, Tsimshian, Kwa Na Ki Nulth and Nuchatlaht Nations. “We have a spiritual connection with all that dwell in our natural surroundings. Our beliefs, based on our ancient traditions, guide us to live in balance with the wildlife that we share this land with.” — T.J. Young, Kaigani, Haida. Ages 3–7.
When I Was Eight by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, illustrated by Gabrielle Grimard: Olemaun is eight and knows a lot of things. But she does not know how to read. Ignoring her father’s warnings, she travels far from her Arctic home to the outsiders’ school to learn. The nuns at the school call her Margaret. They cut off her long hair and force her to do menial chores, but she remains undaunted. Her tenacity draws the attention of a black-cloaked nun who tries to break her spirit at every turn. But the young girl is more determined than ever to learn how to read. Based on the true story of Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, and complemented by stunning illustrations, When I Was Eight is a young readers version of the bestselling memoir, Fatty Legs. Now young readers can meet this remarkable girl who reminds us what power we hold when we can read. Ages 6–8.
Wild Berries by Julie Flett: Tch, tch, sh, sh, tup, tup. Spend the day picking wild blueberries with Clarence and his grandmother. Meet ant, spider, and fox in a beautiful woodland landscape, the ancestral home of author and illustrator Julie Flett. This book is written in both English and Cree, in particular the n-dialect, also known as Swampy Cree from the Cumberland House area. Ages 4–8.
We Sang You Home by Richard Van Camp, illustrated by Julie Flett: In this sweet and lyrical board book from the creators of the bestselling Little You, gentle rhythmic text captures the wonder new parents feel as they welcome baby into the world. A celebration of the bond between parent and child, this is the perfect song to share with your little ones. Ages 0–5.
Saltypie: A Choctaw Journey From Darkness Into Light by Tim Tingle, illustrated by Karen Clarkson: In this powerful family saga, author Tim Tingle tells the story of his family’s move from Oklahoma Choctaw country to Pasadena, TX. Spanning 50 years, Saltypie describes the problems encountered by his Choctaw grandmother — from her orphan days at an Indian boarding school to hardships encountered in her new home on the Gulf Coast. Tingle says, “Stories of modern Indian families rarely grace the printed page. Long before I began writing, I knew this story must be told.” Seen through the innocent eyes of a young boy, Saltypie is the story of one family’s efforts to honor the past while struggling to gain a foothold in modern America. Ages 6–10.
Jingle Dancer by Cynthia Leitich Smith, illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu: The affirming story of how a contemporary Native girl turns to her family and community to help her dance find a voice. Jenna loves the tradition of jingle dancing that has been shared by generations of women in her family, and she hopes to dance at the next powwow. But she has a problem — how will her dress sing if it has no jingles? The cone-shaped jingles sewn to Grandma Wolfe’s dress sing tink, tink, tink, tink. Jenna’s heart beats to the brum, brum, brum, brum of the powwow drum as she daydreams about the clinking song of her grandma’s jingle dancing. Ages 4–8.
Dragonfly Kites by Tomson Highway, illustrated by Julie Flett: Joe and Cody, two young Cree brothers, along with their parents and their little dog Ootsie, are spending the summer by one of the hundreds of lakes in northern Manitoba. Summer means a chance to explore the world and make friends with an array of creatures, but what Joe and Cody like doing best of all is flying dragonfly kites. Off soar the dragonflies into the summer sky and off race the brothers and Ootsie too, chasing after their dragonfly kites through trees and meadows and down to the beach before watching them disappear into the night sky. In their dreams, Joe and Cody soar through the skies with their kites until it’s time to wake up. Tomson Highway brilliantly evokes the very essence of childhood as he weaves a deceptively simple story about the power of the imagination. Dragonfly Kites has a bilingual text, written in English and Cree. Ages 4–7.
About the curators
The following three organizations curated this booklist and allowed EmbraceRace to cross post it here.
The Conscious Kid Library is an education, research, and policy organization dedicated to reducing bias and promoting positive identity development in young children. They promote access to diverse children’s books that center underrepresented and oppressed groups.
American Indians in Children’s Literature provides critical perspectives and analysis of indigenous peoples in children’s and young adult books, the school curriculum, popular culture, and society.
Brooklyn Children’s Museum works to ensure that all children have access to cultural learning opportunities that build empathy, encourage creative thought and problem solving, and inspire global citizenship. BCM believes in the power of culture to help children and families find comfort, resilience and stimulation. All books featured in the #IndigenousReads list support BCM’s commitment to cultural learning and will be available to read during story time at the museum throughout November.
EmbraceRace is a multiracial community of people supporting each other to help nurture kids who are thoughtful, informed, and brave about race. Join us! Like us on Facebook and sign up for our monthly newsletter.
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