Over the course of history, the stories of Native Americans have rarely been told…at least, not accurately. Even today, it can be hard to find representations of indigenous people in literature, particularly written in their own voices.
I remember my oldest son coming home from Kindergarten and talking about Native Americans in past tense, as if they no longer exist. He was surprised to learn that Native American people still live in our country today. He was also surprised to learn that there’s not one group of people called “Native American,” but rather many groups of indigenous people, each with their own language, culture, and tradition.
I knew I had to do better. So we turned to books.
I chose the books for this list not only because they are excellent stories, but also because they are all written by Native American and Native Canadian authors. In addition, I focused on books with a contemporary setting, so non-Native readers will see that Native people are not just “characters” in the Thanksgiving story, but real people. And it’s equally important for children who are part of a Native culture to see kids like them in the stories they read.
23 Books with Native Main Characters
Stolen Words by Melanie Florence — A little girl asks her grandfather how to say something in his Native language of Cree, but he is unable to answer. As a child, he was forced into Canada’s residential school system for native children, where he was not allowed to speak anything but English. The sweet granddaughter finds a special way for her grandfather to connect to his stolen words. My boys loved this book and it led to some excellent discussion. Available in both English and Cree/English editions.
Jingle Dancer by Cynthia Leitich Smith — When Jenna sees a video of Grandma Wolfe dancing at a powwow, she is amazed. She wants to dance at the powwow, just like her grandmother. But, her dress doesn’t make the beautiful jingling noise that Grandma Wolfe’s does. Jenna’s family and members of her community come together to help her make her dress sing.
Saltypie: A Choctaw Journey from Darkness to Light by Tim Tingle — This book tells the story of the author’s own family, particularly his grandmother. While Mawmaw is in the hosptial having surgery, her family gathers and tells stories of her life, from her time in an Indian boarding school to the difficult move from Oklahoma to Texas and the discrimination she faced. This gorgeous and moving book is best read with kids age 7 and older.
My Heart Fills with Happiness by Monique Gray Smith — This sweet board book is a celebration of the small things that bring great joy. The illustrations show beautiful Indigenous children cultivating happiness in the everyday moments of life. Perfect for reading with babies and toddlers.
Thunder Boy Jr. by Sherman Alexie — When your dad is named Big Thunder, of course everyone calls you Little Thunder. But Little Thunder wants a name that is all his own, that represents something awesome that he has done, not merely a reflection of his father. Big Thunder helps Little Thunder find a nickname that is perfect for him, and one that still illustrates their special bond. *I struggled with whether or not to add this book to our list, due to the many allegations of sexual harassment against the author. I ultimately decided to add it to our list with this disclaimer, so readers can make the decision that best fits their family.
Shi-shi-etko by Nicola I. Campbell — In only four days, Shi-shi-etko will leave her family to attend a residential school. Her family shares with her the things they most want her to remember, and she hides away these memories as she prepares to face an entirely new and scary experience. This book includes information about the Canadian residential school system that separated native children from their families, and is best for kids ages 7 and up.
Sweetest Kulu by Celina Kalluk — Kulu is an Inuktitut term of endearment for babies, and this book is a sweet poem about the love and joy a newborn baby brings. The animals of the Arctic bring gifts to a sweet little Kulu, while the text shares a parent’s love. This board book is an excellent choice for babies and toddler, and is the perfect bedtime read for kids of any age.
Mission To Space by John Herrington — Native American astronaut John Herrington weaves together a beautiful story that shares both his preparation for a trip to space and his Chickasaw heritage. Herrington is the first member of a Native American tribe to travel to space, and his story is inspiring for all children.
Dragonfly Kites by Tomson Highway — Brothers Joe and Cody are spending the summer in northern Manitoba. They love exploring the landscape with their dog Ootsie, but more than anything, they love flying Dragonfly Kites. During the day they gently tie strings to dragonflies and follow them through the air. At night, they dream of flying alongside the dragonflies. Written in both English and Cree, this book captures the magic of summer.
We Sang You Home by Richard Van Camp — Is there anything more magical than a new baby? This beautiful board book highlights the love and pride new parents feel when they bring their child home for the first time. It’s perfect for bedtime reading and an excellent gift for new parents.
A Day with Yayah by Nicola I. Campbell — This story follows a First Nations family as they head out to forage for mushrooms and edible plants. Yayah, the grandmother, is able to share her extensive knowledge of plant life and the local environment with her young grandchildren.
When We Were Alone by David Alexander Robinson — As a young girl helps her grandmother in the garden, she asks about the things that make her grandmother unique: her long braid, her colorful clothes. Her grandmother explains about her experience in a Canadian residential school, where her native culture was not allowed to be expressed. This sweet story gently explains a difficult time in history in a way young children can understand.
Little You by Richard Van Camp — This sweet board book celebrates the potential for amazing things that lies in every young child. A great reminder that little ones are strong, powerful, wonderful, and special, this book is perfect for babies and toddlers.
When I Was Eight by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton — Olemon is eight years old, and more than anything, she wants to learn how to read. She is determine to go to the Indian Residential School to learn how, despite her father’s objections. When she arrives, she is given an English name and is forced to cut her hair. Harsh teachers and mean classmates make things hard, but Olemon will not be deterred from her goal of learning to read.
Loving Me by Debbie Slier — One of my favorite board books! Gorgeous photos of Native American families highlight the bond between children and their parents, grandparents, and siblings. If you like this book, you may also enjoy Slier’s other board book, Cradle Me.
The Blue Roses by Linda Boyden — Rosalie loves gardening, and especially loves gardening alongside her grandfather. Papa planted a red rosebush under her window the day she was born, and over the years yellow, pink, and orange roses have been added to represent the sunset. Rosalie wants to plant blue roses to represent the sky, but Papa tells her blue roses don’t exist.
Zoe and the Fawn by Catherine Jameson — When Zoe is walking in the forest, she encounters a fawn who is all alone. Zoe wants to help the fawn find its mother, but she’s not sure who its mother is! As she and her father walk through the forest looking for the correct mother, readers will learn the Okanagan names for many wild creatures.
Kunu’s Basket by Lee DeCora Francis — Kunu wants to learn how to weave baskets, like his father, Muhmum, and all of the other men on Indian Island. However, Kunu can’t seem to get it right. He grows frustrated, and when his father offers help, Kunu only gets more upset. Muhmum encourages Kunu to keep trying, and to be gracious with himself. This fantastic story is an excellent lesson in perseverance, and is especially good for school-aged kids.
Mama, Do You Love Me? by Barbara M. Joosse — Similar in style to Guess How Much I Love You?, in this board book, a little girl questions the limited of her mother’s love. Will her mother love her even when she isn’t so lovable? Her mother assures her daughter that no matter what, her love will always be there. This board book is great for reading with your little ones at bedtime.
Wild Berries by Julie Flett — Young Clarence and his grandmother venture into the woods to pick berries together. As they pick berries, they meet a wide variety of forest creatures. Written in both English and Swampy Cree dialect, this book is a beautiful look at the ancestral homeland of the author. This book is a fun read-aloud and is great for preschoolers.
Hungry Johnny by Cheryl Kay Minnema — Johnny loves to eat, eat, eat! He can’t wait to eat all of the delicious food that Grandma is cooking up. But Johnny’s patience is tested when Grandma packs up the food, they head to the Community Center, and then he has to sit through the long Ojibwe prayer. Then he must wait for the elders to eat! Johnny begins to wonder if there will be any food left when his turn comes. As Johnny waits, he learns an important lesson about respect, patience, and gratitude — and that his community will make sure everyone always has something to eat.
SkySisters by Jan Bourdeau Waboose — Two Ojibway sisters are venturing to see the Northern Lights. Their grandmother has told them, “Wisdom comes on silent wings,” but the younger sister finds it hard to stay quiet. However, the longer she travels, the more she comes to appreciate the quiet. Some supernatural helpers come alongside the sisters to help them reach their destination.
When the Shadbush Blooms by Carla Messinger and Susan Katz — This book celebrates the beauty of tradition. It tells the story of a contemporary sister and a traditional sister. As the contemporary sister moves about her day, fishing for shad, picking berries, and listening to stories, she knows that her traditional sister and generations of women before her have done the same.
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