baby proof: bedtime stories by native authors.

November 13, 2017

children's books by native authors | reading my tea leavesIn 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.children's books by native authors for preschool kids | reading my tea leaves

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.

National Museum of the American Indian: Their American Indian Perspectives on Thanksgiving teacher’s guide is for older kids, but it’s helpful for teachers, parents, and caregivers alike.

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 BookshopBooks Are MagicGreenlight 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.)

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29 Comments

  • Reply Robin November 13, 2017 at 10:50 am

    As a Cree woman in Canada, I cannot thank you enough for this post. My traditional father is a writer. One of my favourites is a book he wrote called Goose Girl (by Joe McLellan). It is a story of loss and how we think of loss in our culture and a great way to talk about life with children.

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE November 13, 2017 at 10:52 am

      Thanks as always for reading, Robin! Added a link to Goose Girl so folks can find it!

  • Reply Anna Lee November 13, 2017 at 10:56 am

    Sealaska Heritage has a program called Baby Raven Reads that produces books from Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian traditions: https://sealaska-heritage-store.myshopify.com/collections/baby-raven-reads
    They weave together traditional imagery, stories, and Native language in a beautiful way. I love to give these to new babies!

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE November 13, 2017 at 10:58 am

      Thanks so much, Anna!

  • Reply Christie November 13, 2017 at 2:00 pm

    Thank you for this Erin. I am so embarrassed to say that I had not considered reading books specifically by and about our Native/Indigenous peoples. I am going to look up all of these resources and include them in bedtime stories/conversations with my children.

  • Reply Jennifer November 13, 2017 at 2:06 pm

    For older kids (grade school), The Birchbark House series by Louise Erdrich is absolutely wonderful.

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE November 13, 2017 at 3:26 pm

      Lovely! We have a copy of Chickadee from the library, but it doesn’t quite hold Faye’s attention yet!

    • Reply Eo November 13, 2017 at 7:40 pm

      I second this! 🙂

  • Reply Lauren November 13, 2017 at 3:16 pm

    I second Louise Erdrich. Wonderful native author with books for adults as well.

    For anyone from or visiting Minneapolis, she owns the sweet store Birchbark Book (https://birchbarkbooks.com/). Books by, about, and friendly toward native people as well as some native-made jewelry. Very kid friendly as well!

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE November 13, 2017 at 9:07 pm

      Another reason to visit Minneapolis!

  • Reply Jennie November 13, 2017 at 3:54 pm

    So excited about this post!! I’m a children’s librarian, and Debbie Reese is my go-to for purchasing as well as weeding picture books by/about Native Americans. It can be quite a minefield navigating these books, and it is incredible to have such an authority on the subject so readily available. I must admit, just reading her blog has opened my eyes to many many many of my own blind spots. I can’t recommend her enough 🙂 Thanks for sharing these titles!

    • Reply Elizabeth November 14, 2017 at 4:54 pm

      Yes, yes, 100% agree! I lean hard on Debbie Reese’s site in vetting books before we share them with our son – and for help identifying books that are worth our time! We love Julie Flett’s illustrations and also recommend We Sang You Home for a sweet new baby book.

  • Reply cc November 13, 2017 at 5:58 pm

    In Texas, “The Legend of the Bluebonnet” is a favorite children’s book….. Though I always thought Tomie de Paola was a woman from the Southwest. I learned today, however, that he is an older white gentleman who studied in NH and lives in CT. Ha! I never knew.

    • Reply Jennifer O. November 16, 2017 at 9:47 am

      There’s also The Legend of the Indian Paintbrush. I haven’t read either of them since I was a kid in Texas so I can’t remember if there was anything sketchy in them, but I loved them as a kid in the late 80s.

  • Reply Meghan November 13, 2017 at 6:15 pm

    I’ve been thinking about this too with my little ones. My almost 4 year old has loved The Gift Horse, Buffalo Bird Girl, and The Star People by SD Nelson and we just read Squanto’s Journey by Joseph Bruchac. It was actually reading the Little House books with her that got me started looking for books by Native American authors.

  • Reply Emily Bharatiya November 13, 2017 at 8:40 pm

    Thanks for putting this sweet list together. We’ve been reading My Heart Fills With Happiness. Love it. If people are interested there are SO many instagram feeds focusing on books of diversity. Three of my go tos are: @itsybitsyresisters @theparallelnarrative and @hereweread they are always sharing books I’ve never heard of! Very inspiring.

  • Reply Stephanie November 13, 2017 at 9:08 pm

    I’d like to recommend Stolen Words by Melanie Florence. I just got it for my 3 year old and it addresses the experience and trauma of residential school survivors in a way that’s understandable for young children, told through the relationship of a young child with her grandfather.

  • Reply Sarah November 13, 2017 at 11:46 pm

    Thank you for this. Reconciliation is a major topic in Canada at the moment and this is an excellent list of things for settlers to do if we want to put reconciliation in action. A lot of them are things you could involve your children in!

    http://activehistory.ca/2017/08/150-acts-of-reconciliation-for-the-last-150-days-of-canadas-150/
    Number 27 is reading books about reconciliation to your children, and links to this list from the CBC:

    http://www.cbc.ca/news/indigenous/10-books-about-residential-schools-to-read-with-your-kids-1.3208021

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE November 14, 2017 at 9:25 am

      Thanks so much for passing both links along, Sarah! Just got a note today that our copy of Shi-shi-etko is ready to pick up at the library!

  • Reply Sara November 14, 2017 at 11:09 am

    A couple of our favourites are Wild Berries illustrated and written by Julie Flett – it’s so beautiful and written in English and Cree, and Sometimes I Feel Like a Fox by Danielle Daniel – based on the Anishinaabe tradition of totem animals.

  • Reply Kim November 14, 2017 at 12:37 pm

    A favorite in my house is Thunder Boy Jr. by Sherman Alexie – it is a really sweet story focused on identity and a father-son relationship. My son loves the illustrations by Yuyi Morales. I’d like to second what Jennie said about Debbie Reese – her website is an invaluable resource (and she provides helpful context on Thunder Boy Jr, particularly for educators).

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE November 14, 2017 at 12:44 pm

      Faye loved Thunder Boy, Jr., too, but I felt conflicted about recommending it because of the possibility of misinterpretation by white readers. Very much appreciated Debbie Reese’s analysis!

    • Reply Joan November 15, 2017 at 3:14 pm

      I loved the Thunder Boy Jr. and so did my two brown boys. Really important and sweet!

  • Reply Elizabeth November 14, 2017 at 4:57 pm

    Also I HIGHLY recommend this site for parents who are looking for diverse books for their kids – or loved ones who need a bit of a nudge in the direction of understanding why diverse books really matter: http://weneeddiversebooks.org/

  • Reply Eve November 14, 2017 at 11:22 pm

    “When the Trees Crackle With Cold” is a lovely book that follows the moon calendar of the northern Cree, reminding us how much we are connected to the rhythms of nature. We read it many times during a week, as it is always fitting, appropriate, and relatable, especially if you live in the North.

    https://www.chapters.indigo.ca/en-ca/books/when-the-trees-crackle-with/9781927756843-item.html

  • Reply Allison Hicks November 15, 2017 at 5:22 pm

    As an enrolled member of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation and also of Choctaw of Oklahoma descent, thank you for this!

  • Reply Abby November 16, 2017 at 1:50 pm

    This is very much for YA readers, but Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is funny and sad and wonderful.

    I used to teach American history to 7th graders and 11th graders, and for both I used We Shall Remain, a great PBS series retelling big events in American history from Native perspectives. It features reenactments and scholarly accounts, and the first episode, After the Mayflower, focuses on the gradual disintegration of the relationship between the Wampanoags and the Puritans, culminating in King Philip’s War.

    Thanks so much for this post. Really timely and a good reminder for me to consciously purchase more books by Native authors, especially for my toddler.

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