When I started reviewing books in 2015, there were almost none that featured contemporary Indigenous American characters. Thankfully, that has started to change. Dr. Debbie Reese (Nambé Pueblo) has been a huge advocate. This year, HarperCollins launched Heartdrum a Native-focused imprint. And the 2021 Caldecott went to an American Indian illustrator, Michaela Goade (Tlingit and Haida) for We Are Water Protectors, written by Carole Lindstrom (Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe). As I was putting together this list, I noticed how many books, especially earlier ones, were published by small independent presses. Kudos to them for their recognition of Native stories, authors, and illustrators.
Published by Children’s Book Press, 2020
Peruvian archaeologist Julio Tello, nicknamed Sharuko (“brave”) grew up in an indigenous community. After getting a Harvard degree, he returned to Peru where his discoveries proved that indigenous cultures originated in Peru, not Mexico or Central America as was previously believed. Includes maps; an afterword, illustrator’s note, and list of sources. 40 pages; grades 2-6.
Rez Dogs by Joseph Bruchac
Published by Dial Books, 2021
Malian is visiting her grandparents on a Wabanaki reservation when Covid hits. She loves her grandparents but is sometimes bored, lonely, and frustrated by spotty Wi-Fi. A rez dog provides her with some company and helps her to better appreciate her family and their culture. 192 pages; grades 3-7.
Bowwow Powwow by Brenda J. Child, translated by Gordon Jourdain, illustrated by Jonathan Thunder
Published by The Minnesota Historical Society, 2018
When Windy Girl and her dog Itchy Boy go to the powwow, Windy falls asleep and dreams about a powwow populated by dogs. She wakes up just in time to join the last dance. The story is in both English and Ojibwe. Includes an author’s note. 32 pages; grades K-3.
Unstoppable: How Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team Defeated Army by Art Coulson, illustrated by Nick Hardcastle
Published by Capstone, 2018
Given the subtitle, you know from the start the outcome of this game between the West Point team that included Dwight Eisenhower and the Carlisle Indian School team featuring Jim Thorpe and coach Pop Warner. The history behind it and the new kind of football that the Carlisle team played add multiple dimensions to the story. Includes additional information on Thorpe, Warner, and the Carlisle Indian School, as well as a glossary and list of sources. 40 pages; grades 3-6.
Sharice’s Big Voice: A Native Kid Becomes a Congresswoman by Sharice Davids with Nancy K. Mays, illustrated by Joshua Nageshig Pawis-Steckley
Published by HarperCollins, 2021
Sharice Davids narrates the journey that led to her 2018 election as a representative from Kansas, one of the first two Native American women in Congress, and the first LGBTQ Native American there. 40 pages; grades K-4.
Birdsong by Julie Flett
Published by Greystone Kids, 2019
A beautiful book about intergenerational friendship and the cycles of life. Julie Flett deftly inserts Cree words and imagery into the story. Includes a glossary of Cree words. 48 pages; ages 4-8.
We All Play = Kimêtawânaw by Julie Flett
Published by Greystone Kids, 2021
Children and animals play throughout this simple book that will have kids up on their feet and moving. Includes a list of animals in English and Cree. There’s also additional information on the Cree language, a website readers can visit to hear pronunciations of the words in the book, and a letter from the author. 48 pages; ages 2-7.
The First Blades of Sweetgrass: A Native American Story by Suzanne Greenlaw and Gabriel Frey, illustrated by Nancy Baker
Published by Tilbury House Publishers, 2021
Musquon learns from her grandmother the art of gathering and braiding sweetgrass. Includes an author’s note with additional information about sweetgrass and the Wabanaki Confederacy, and a list of the Passamaquoddy-Maliseet words used in the text. 32 pages; ages 4-8.
Josie Dances by Denise Lajimodiere, illustrated by Angela Erdrich
Published by The Minnesota Historical Society, 2021
The women in Josie’s family and tribe help her prepare to dance in her first powwow, sewing her costume and giving her her spirit name. Includes a glossary and information about Turtle Mountain, a reservation where the author lives as a citizen of the Tribal Band of Chippewa and the illustrator is a tribal member. 32 pages; ages 4-8.
We Are Water Protectors by Carole Lindstrom, illustrated by Michaela Goade
Published by Roaring Brook Press, 2020
The Ojibwe narrator recounts the prophecy of a black snake poisoning the water; now it seems that prophecy has come true, and she joins others at Standing Rock to protect the water. Includes author’s and illustrator’s notes with more information about Standing Rock; a glossary of six words from various indigenous languages from the text; and an “Earth Steward and Water Protector Pledge” to sign. 40 pages; grades K-3.
Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story by Kevin Noble Maillard, illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal
Published by Roaring Brook, 2019
A celebration of many different Native groups that shows the commonality they share in making and eating fry bread. The author shares his fry bread recipe at the end, followed by eight pages that give a lot more historical and cultural information about each page of the main text. 48 pages; ages 3-6.
Zonia’s Rain Forest by Juana Martinez-Neal
Published by Candlewick, 2021
Zonia is Asháninka, the largest indigenous group living in the Peruvian rain forest. She loves playing all day with her animal friends, but at the end of the day she is disturbed when she finds the stumps of trees that have been cut down. Her mother tells her the forest is calling to her, and Zonia promises to help. Includes additional information about the Asháninka, the Amazon and threats to it, and Zonia’s animal friends in order of appearance. Spanish version also available: La Selva de Zonia. 40 pages; ages 4-8.
When the Shadbush Blooms by Carla Messinger with Susan Katz, illustrated by David Kanletakeron Fadden
Published by Lee and Low Books, 2020
Two girls from a Lenni Lenape tribe, Traditional Sister and Contemporary Sister describe their lives with their families through the course of one year. Includes information on the Lenni Lenape people, as well as some of the cultural features portrayed in the book. 32 pages; ages 4-8.
The Used-to-Be Best Friend (Jo Jo Makoons series) by Dawn Quigley, illustrated by Tara Audibert
Published by Heartdrum, 2021
Jo Jo’s a first grader on the Ojibwe reservation with her own unique take on how to deal with family, friends, and her teacher. Includes a glossary of Ojibwe and Michif words and additional information about the Ojibwe people. 80 pages; grades 1-4.
Wilma’s Way Home: The Life of Wilma Mankiller by Doreen Rappaport, illustrated by Linda Kukuk
Published by Disney-Hyperion, 2019
How Wilma Mankiller became the first woman to be elected chief of the Cherokee nation in 1985. Includes notes from the author and illustrator, a timeline, a pronunciation guide for the Cherokee words used in the text, and lists of additional resources. 48 pages; grades 1-5.
On the Trapline by David A. Robertson, illustrated by Julie Flett
Published by Tundra Books, 2021
Moshom (Grandpa) hasn’t been to the trapline in the northern wilderness since he was a boy, but now he and his grandson are going back for a visit. Includes notes from the author (who made a similar journey with his father) and the illustrator, as well as a glossary of Swampy Cree words. 48 pages; grades 1-5.
Undefeated: Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team by Steve Sheinkin
Published by Roaring Brook, 2017
A longer, more detailed account of Jim Thorpe’s football career on the Carlisle Indian School Football Team, including the 1911 game with West Point which drew a bigger crowd than any other American sporting event that year. 288 pages; grades 5-10.
Sisters of the Neversea by Cynthia Leitich Smith
Published by Heartdrum, 2021
An updated Peter Pan story, featuring stepsisters Lily, who is Muscogee Creek, and Wendy, a white girl originally from England. Take that, patriarchy! Includes an author’s note that discusses the questions she had about the original story that led her to create this one. 320 pages; grades 4-7.
At the Mountain’s Base by Traci Sorell, illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre
Published by Kokila, 2019
A family gathers and sings, while thinking of a member of the family who’s in the military and praying for her safety and for peace. Includes an author’s note about American Indian and Alaska Native women who have served in wars. One pilot in particular is profiled, Ola Mildred Rexroat, who was the only Native woman among 1074 Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) in World War II. 32 pages; ages 4-8.
We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga by Traci Sorell, illustrated by Frané Lissac
Published by Charlesbridge, 2018
Cherokee people express gratitude as they move through the seasons of the year. Cherokee words and their pronunciations are scattered throughout the text. End matter includes a glossary, an author’s note, and a Cherokee syllabary with some lessons about the Cherokee language. 32 pages; ages 4-8.
We Are Still Here! Native American Truths Everyone Should Know by Traci Sorell, illustrated by Frané Lissac
Published by Charlesbridge, 2021
A group of kids from the Native Nations Community School puts together a presentation for Indigenous People’s Day. There are reports on such topics as assimilation, relocation, tribal activism, and language revival. Includes additional information on each presentation; a timeline covering 1870-2007; a glossary of terms and a list of sources; and an author’s note giving more information about the book and her personal connection to Native history (she’s a dual citizen of the Cherokee Nation and the United States). 40 pages; grades 2-5.