The holiday shopping season is upon us, and with Native American History Month winding down, now is a great time to combine the two with some recommendations that do double duty: They not only educate children about American Indian heritage but also make great gifts!
We recently profiled books that adults can read to learn more about Native American Heritage Month. Now it's the kids' turn. The best source for such books would be the website American Indians in Children’s Literature (AICL), which has a year-round list of books that are great for teaching children about Turtle Island’s Indigenous Peoples. Debbie Reese (Nambe Pueblo, Upper Village, New Mexico), who runs the website, has selected the books and separated them into four age categories. Below are some samplings from each of AICL’s four lists.
Top Board Books for Babes, for the toddler-and-under set, is chock full of picture books that showcase art, teach the alphabet as well as Native languages and illustrate tribal legends. There is something for everyone in this list, starting with Baby Learns about Colors, by Beverly Blacksheep (Salina, 2003), one of an eight-book bilingual series in Navajo and English featuring a baby girl and her growth “in a tribally specific context,” Reese writes. The series teaches in the same fashion about animals, seasons, senses, time, weather, counting and even laughing.
There’s also I See Me, by Margaret Manuel, (Theyfus, 2010), which contains blank lines below the English photo captions for someone to fill out using any language.
Learn the Alphabet with Northwest Coast Art (2010, Garfinkle Publications, no author listed) is a board book with illustrations by First Nations artists. There’s also one about counting, Learn to Count with Northwest Coast Native Art.
The Christmas Coat: Memories of My Sioux Childhood (Holiday House, 2011), by Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve, won the Picture Book Award from the American Indian Library Association earlier this year.
Beaver Steals Fire: A Salish Coyote Story (University of Nebraska Press, 2008), by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, tells about how fire traveled from the animals in the land above to the people on the earth below via the trickster Coyote, who teamed up with Grizzly Bear, Wren, Snake, Frog, Eagle and Beaver to stole the precious flames from Curlew, the keeper of the sky world.
The Good Luck Cat (Harcourt Children's Books, 2000), by Joy Harjo, Muskogee Creek, tells of the relationship between a girl and her cat. The author herself came out this year with a grown-up memoir, Crazy Brave.
Next up is Top Ten Books for Middle School, including volumes by the likes of Joseph Bruchac and Louise Erdrich.
The Birchbark House (Hyperion Press, 1999) by Louise Erdrich lets Omakayas, an Ojibwe girl who lives on an island in Lake Superior around 1847, tell her own story and that of her people in a book that The New York Times said was akin to the classic Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Erdrich recently won a National Book Award for her adult novel The Round House. She owns Birchbark Books, the famed Minnesota shop.
Indian Shoes (HarperCollins, 2002) by Cynthia Leitich Smith, introduces us to Ray, a Cherokee-Seminole boy who lives with his Granpa Halfmoon in Chicago. The vignettes describing his adventures with moccasins, in a wedding and a neighbor’s pets to paint a comprehensive and entertaining picture of urban Native life. Also on the list is Rain Is Not My Indian Name, which Leitich Smith also wrote.
High Elk’s Treasure (Holiday House, 1995), also by Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve, tells Lakota history through the adventures of Joe High Elk, a young Lakota who finds a historical treasure hidden by an ancestor after the Battle of Little Big Horn. “This book includes realistic characters and exciting adventure with which all children can identify, while at the same time presenting contemporary Lakota life,” says one reviewer on Amazon.com.
Finally we get to the Top Ten Books for High School, which is of course topped by Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which has been both praised and vilified, the latter most notably with its inclusion two years running on the American Library Association’s (ALA) list of most-challenged books.
Moccasin Thunder: American Indian Stories for Today (Harper Teen, 2005) is an anthology edited by Lori Marie Carlson whose anecdotes—from a checkout line at the supermarket, a rowboat at dawn on a freezing lake and an ice hockey game—bring alive the American Indian experience of today.
For some history, Night Flying Woman: An Ojibway Narrative (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1983), recounts the life of the great-great-grandmother of the author, Ignatia Broker, Red Lake Band of Chippewa.
These are among those that the AICL considers to be essential reading for children and youth who want to know more about American Indian history and heritage. The full lists are available at the AICL website.