‘Empower Native kids to read’

The 2020 American Indian Youth Literature Awards were presented Monday in Philadelphia

“Hearts Unbroken,” “Bowwow Powwow” and “Indian No More” have a better reason to be placed on your bookshelves or in your children’s hands. They are the winners of the 2020 American Indian Youth Literature Award.

Since the American Indian Youth Literature Award’s establishment in 2006, winners were typically recognized at a local conference every other year. This wasn’t the case Monday.

They were recognized under bright lights in Philadelphia at the annual Youth Media Awards hosted by the American Library Association, the world’s oldest library association.

Along with the big awards, these books received national attention on stage with other prestigious children’s literature awards such as The Caldecott Medal, The Coretta Scott King Award and The Newbery Medal.

The American Indian Library Association, an organization founded in 1979, presented the American Indian Youth Literature Award. The association addresses the library-related needs of Native people.

The list of awardees includes 14 books written and illustrated by Native people. It also included “Molly of Denali” which won an award for Excellence in Early Learning Digital Media.

[Related: ‘Molly of Denali’ is like my siblings]

The award is based on three categories: Best Picture Book, Best Middle-Grade Book and Best Young Adult Book. It is an award given every two years.

The award’s criteria are specific. To be considered for the prize, both authors and illustrators of a book must be Native and recognized by the community they claim. They also require that stories are “free of stereotypes.”

The committee says this is because positive representation is important for Native children.

“If you're gonna empower Native kids to read, it needs to be high quality,” says Naomi Bishop, Akimel O’odham and Pima, who is a committee member. “There’s a lot of misrepresentation out there, and those books are harmful.”

The award criteria also encourages stories to reflect the values of Native cultures like community, language, history and family. They require that authors reflect accurate depictions of the story’s time period. 

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Book faces of all 14 books that received honors from the American Indian Youth Literature award committee.

The books chosen this year included topics such as traditional tattooing, forced adoption, Native women military heroes and missing and murdered Indigenous women.

Aside from celebrating “the best of the best” in Native children’s literature, the award was also created to increase the number of Native authors and illustrators in children’s publishing.

There were approximately 3,653 children’s books published in 2018. Of those, 38 of them were by Native or First Nations authors, according to a study by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center.

The American Indian Youth Literature Award aims to highlight the works of the Native authors despite the challenging statistics.

“I would rather put more energy into celebrating quality books than complain about the publishing industry,” Bishop said. “Celebrating those quality and authentic voices is very important for us because of that.”

The book winners this year follow characters with interesting stories. But the authors have interesting stories, too.

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 This year’s winner for Best Picture Book is Bowwow Powwow: Bagosenjige-niimi’idim.” It was written by Brenda J. Child of Red Lake Ojibwe, translated into Ojibwe by Gordon Jourdain who is Lac La Croix First Nation, and illustrated by Jonathan Thunder, Red Lake Ojibwe.

The story follows Windy, a young girl, who goes to a powwow with her uncle and dog Itchy Boy. Afterward, she has a “weird and wonderful” dream about a “bowwow powwow,” where all the dancers are dogs. In Windy’s dream, she sees all of the veterans in Grand Entry, a drum group, and traditional dancers, grass dancers, jingle-dress dancers and fancy dancers.

The book’s illustrator says he was invested in bringing the pictures to life. He is an animator who makes short films and took this project on the side. Thunder started by drawing images with a pencil and paper. Then he translated the photos to an iPad where he created the ink and color. He used tools on his iPad to add texture, shading and effects.

“For me, a lot of the drawings came from my childhood memories of going to powwows,” Thunder said. “I could relate to being there. The sights, sounds ... and climbing on the bleachers.”

Thunder created 17 drawings in total. He estimates each one took him eight hours. But it was a team effort, he said. Part of his work was ensuring that his drawings made spaces for the words on the page because the story is written in both English and Ojibwe.

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All of the books considered for the American Indian Youth Literature Award were chosen by a committee of 10 people. One of the committee members is Sunny Day Real Bird, Crow Apsaalooké, who teaches seventh-grade math in Montana. She says it is “interesting” to go from teaching math to reading books. And it is hard work, too.

“I didn’t realize how many books would be showing up at my front door,” Real Bird said laughing. “The UPS and FedEx guy knew my name.”

The selection committee uses a spreadsheet to document the books they are considering. She estimates they spend nine months reading the books. They also have “hour-long discussions” about each one.

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The selection committee chose “Indian No More” as the winner for Best Middle-Grade Book. It is co-written by Charlene Willing McManis, Umpqua and the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde and Traci Sorell who is Cherokee. The cover art is by Marlena Myles, who is Spirit Lake Dakota, Mohegan and Muscogee Creek.

The story is based in 1957 and follows the Indian termination era. Readers follow 10-year-old Regina who becomes “Indian no more” overnight after her family is forced to leave the Grand Ronde Reservation when the government says the Umpqua Tribe no longer exists. Regina’s family moves to Los Angeles, where Regina faces racism for the first time.

The backstory of “Indian No More” is unique.

“When you are co-writing a book, you typically get to bounce ideas off your partner,” Sorell said. “But I didn’t really get that opportunity.”

Sorell co-wrote the story with McManis who introduced her to the project. McManis asked Sorell “to get the book ready for publication” after she decided she was getting too sick to finish the book. A few months after this, McManis died after a battle with cancer.

After her death, McManis’ husband sent a box of notes, manuscripts, interviews and newspaper articles to Sorell. Sorell’s job was to add scenes to the story and double-check historical facts.

Sorell said all of this work was to honor the book — and her friend. “It was a bittersweet day when we learned the news,” Sorell said. “When I called her husband to tell him that her book won, we were both emotional and crying.”

“When Charlene walked into a room, everything was brilliant yellow,” Sorell said. “She always had the most radiant smile … she just oozed love and goodness.”

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Hearts Unbroken” is the winner of the Best Young Adult Book Award and was written by Cynthia Leitich Smith, Muscogee.

The story is about Louise who is a high-school journalist. She is tasked with covering a controversial story about her school’s musical “The Wizard of Oz.” As tensions rise, so does Lou’s romantic life. The story follows Lou in “dating while Native.”

The book’s author says the story was loosely based on her own life. It was a love letter to her high-school boyfriend from 1985 to apologize “for a bit of teen awkwardness.”

In preparation for writing, Smith reached out to her former high-school boyfriend to let him know she was “loosely writing” a story on their relationship. He responded via email and then decided to call Smith to talk through the details of the book.

This led to an unexpected surprise for Smith.

“We rekindled things,” Smith said laughing. “We have been back together now for a couple of years … and I anticipate that will continue.”

Smith is a New York Times best-selling author. She is also the author of “Jingle Dancer,” which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.

Besides the American Indian Youth Literature Award, other Native writers took prizes home.

The Robert F. Sibert Award is given as the Most Distinguished Informational Book. This year’s winner was “Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story” by Kevin Maillard, Seminole Nation of Oklahoma. The book is a top seller on Amazon’s children’s Native books list.

This is the second year this award category included an Indigenous author. Last year, “We are Grateful,” written by Sorell, was named an honor book in this category.

[Related: Native children will be seen in ‘Fry Bread’]

“There were a lot of really wonderful books by Native authors and illustrators this year who unfortunately didn’t win,” Smith said. “But I know those books are making a huge difference. And I am cheering for them too!”

Besides the books mentioned above, the selection committee also chose the following books as honor titles.

Picture book category:

  1. Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story,” written by Kevin Noble Maillard; illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal Roaring Brook Press
  2. Birdsong By Julie Flett
  3. At the Mountain's Base By Traci Sorell illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre
  4. We Are Grateful By Traci Sorell / Illustrated by: Frané Lessac. This book was also included as an honor book for the Odyssey Award, which is the best audiobook produced for children.
  5. Raven Makes the Aleutians Sealaska Heritage Institute illustrated by Haida artist Janine Gibbons

Middle-grade category:

  1. I Can Make This Promise by Christine Day
  2. Grizzly Mother by Hetxw'ms Gyetxw (Brett D. Huson) and illustrated by Natasha Donovan

Young adult book category:

  1. Surviving the City by Tasha Spillett-Sumner and illustrated by Natasha Donovan
  2. Reawakening Our Ancestors' Lines Gathered and compiled by Angela Hovak Johnston Photography by Cora DeVos and Meta Antolin
  3. An Indigenous People's History of the US for Young People Authors: Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Debbie Reese, Jean Mendoza
  4. Apple in the Middle by Dawn Quigley
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Aliyah Chavez, Kewa Pueblo, is a reporter-producer at Indian Country Today's Phoenix Bureau. Follow her on Twitter: @aliyahjchavez or email her at achavez@indiancountrytoday.com

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