Indigenous stories

Check out these nine books recommended for primary readers — in November for Native American Heritage Month, and all year round! Don't miss Remember by Joy Harjo, illustrated by Michaela Goade, a 2023 Boston Globe–Horn Book Honor Book; and see also the Horn Book’s updated list of Native American Heritage Month resources.

Who Will Win? [I Like to Read]
by Arihhonni David; illus. by the author
Primary    Holiday    32 pp.
4/23    9780823449484    $15.99
e-book ed.  9780823455126    $9.99

“Bear has fast legs. Turtle has a fast mind. Who will win the race?” An elder, Tota, tells a trickster story in a beginning reader that succeeds both as a learning tool for new readers and as a layered tale to appreciate over repeat readings. When we meet Turtle, he’s standing in a power pose surveying the racecourse on a frozen lake, while on the opposite page, Bear executes an impressive warm-up routine. The digitally created art, in a cartoon style with an edge of realism, is appealing and supports the minimal text, which uses repetition and sight words without overwhelming new readers. Bear bounds over the ice while tricky Turtle swims below, popping up to periodically exclaim, “Here I am!” Bear’s evolving facial expressions will be familiar to anyone who’s run a tough race, and astute observers will notice that the markings on Turtle’s shell are different each time he surfaces. All is revealed in the end, and wily but good-natured Turtle shares his prize. Author David, a member of the ­Haudenosaunee Kanienkehaka (Mohawk) people, includes words from the Kanienkeha language for added interest and context. There is a notable lack of beginning reader books from an Indigenous perspective, and this book is most welcome. ADRIENNE L. PETTINELLI

Autumn Peltier, Water Warrior
by Carole Lindstrom; illus. by Bridget George
Primary    Roaring Brook    40 pp.
9/23    9781250795274    $18.99

Lindstrom (We Are Water Protectors, rev. 7/20; My Powerful Hair, rev. 3/23) introduces the mission of contemporary Indigenous water activist Autumn Peltier and her great-aunt, the late Josephine Henriette Mandamin (both Anishinaabe). The lyrical text, narrated by water itself (“I am nibi. I have a spirit. I have feelings. I remember”), is effective in its simplicity and highlights the belief that water is a living thing that needs us to “Speak for the water. Sing for the water. Dance for the water.” Grandma Josephine (“as she was lovingly known”) recognized the harmful effects of water pollution in the Great Lakes, and she took action. To raise awareness, she walked around the lakes carrying water in a copper pail and united women from other Indigenous communities — now known as the Mother Earth Water Walkers — to join the water protection movement and inform government leaders. “When Grandma Josephine journeyed on to the spirit world, Autumn…began to use her voice for me.” The colorful, flowing illustrations beautifully reflect and depict the nature of water. Peltier provides the book’s foreword; back matter includes more detailed information about Grandma Josephine’s and Autumn’s accomplishments, a glossary, and resources to “keep learning.” NAOMI R. CALDWELL

★ My Powerful Hair
by Carole Lindstrom; illus. by Steph Littlebird
Primary    Abrams    48 pp.
3/23    9781419759437    $18.99
e-book ed.  9781647005740    $15.54

“Our ancestors say / Our hair is our memories. / Our source of strength.” Lindstrom’s (author of Caldecott winner We Are Water Protectors, rev. 7/20, and an enrolled citizen of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe) authentic storytelling text explains the importance of hair — “Native/Indigenous peoples believe that hair holds strength and power” — and its connection to Mother Earth. An Indigenous girl is eager for her hair to grow. She tells us that her mom kept her own hair short because she was told as a child it was “too wild.” Nokomis (her grandmother) had long hair, but it was cut off at the Indian boarding school she was forced to attend as a child. The text follows the girl as her hair grows longer and longer: “When Nimishoomis taught me / how to fish for the first time, / my hair was at my ears”; “When my baby brother was born, / my hair touched my shoulders.” The intergenerational interaction of family highlights the idea many Indigenous families have that future generations can reclaim what was lost. The narrative’s powerful ending brings this story to a satisfying, hopeful conclusion. Debut illustrator Littlebird (a member of Oregon’s Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde) captures the closeness of the family and the strength and determination of the protagonist in bright colors set against woodgrain-like backgrounds. Subtle visual cues in the characters’ facial expressions enable viewers to distinguish emotions as well as depicting the beauty and honor long hair holds for Indigenous people. Appended with an author’s note and a short glossary of Ojibwe words. NAOMI R. CALDWELL

Mnoomin maan’gowing / The Gift of Mnoomin
by Brittany Luby; illus. by Joshua Mangeshig Pawis-Steckley; trans. into Anishinaabemowin by Mary Ann Corbiere
Primary    Groundwood    36 pp.
10/23    9781773068466    $21.99
e-book ed.  9781773068480    $16.99

A lyrical text written in Anishinaabemowin and English tells about the journey of a seed and of an ecosystem. “A seed is a story you can hold in your hand.” The mnoomin seed travels first in the waterways, where it remembers Mayfly, who fed Pike, “who in turn nourished the earth below”; Eagle, who makes sure Muskrat does not eat “more than the field could bear”; and Moose, who “uproots crowding plants” by walking through the water. When the seeds sprout in the water, their leaves provide hiding places for small fish and protection for Duck and her ducklings on shore. Luby’s reverent text then describes the traditional method of harvesting what grows. The winnowed grains are danced upon, washed, roasted, and eaten. Some are stored, and some sown for future harvest. Pawis-Steckley’s vibrant color palette captures the hues of sunlight throughout the story as well as the lush flora and fauna and the warmth of the human interactions. Notes about the balance of the ecosystem and about the book’s use of language are appended. NAOMI R. CALDWELL

When the Stars Came Home
by Brittany Luby; illus. by Natasha Donovan
Primary    Little, Brown    40 pp.
11/23    9780316592499    $18.99

In this affecting picture book, Ojiig, a young Indigenous boy, moves with his parents from their rural home to the city when his father gets a new job. He misses fishing, picking blueberries, and seeing the stars at night; grocery-store shopping and glow-in-the-dark stick-on stars are poor substitutes. A star blanket quilted with Mama (identified in the appended note as an Anishinaabeg woman) and the accompanying stories of Ojiig’s ancestors bring comfort, and the arrival of his grandparents for a visit also helps the city to feel like home. “Home is where you discover who you are. Home is who you imagine who you might become.” Luby’s lyrical text and Donovan’s vibrant colored-pencil and digital illustrations combine to powerfully convey universal themes about change and the strength of family. An author’s note gives background on Anishinaabeg and Dakota quilting traditions; a pronunciation guide is also appended. NAOMI R. CALDWELL

Grandma’s Tipi: A Present-Day Lakota Story
by S. D. Nelson; illus. by the author
Primary, Intermediate    Abrams    40 pp.
5/23    9781419731921    $18.99
e-book ed.  9798887070599    $15.54

Nelson (Sitting Bull, rev. 11/15; Red Cloud, rev. 7/17) shares Indigenous traditions and practices involving tipis that continue in modern times. Young Clara comes to stay with her unci (­grandmother) and cousin ­Juniper, who live on the Standing Rock Sioux ­Reservation. Over the course of an ­idyllic summer, the two girls learn about their history, particularly about the ­family tipi, a precious object that has been passed down through the ­generations and has profound significance for their family. The girls have lunch in the tipi; their unci braids their hair in the tipi; they even sleep in it overnight. Their unci adds the girls to the family’s generational story by asking each granddaughter about her aspirations (Juniper wants to be a basketball player; Clara, a pilot) and then making their spirit ­paintings on the outside of the tipi. Nelson’s vibrant illustrations are stylized to reflect Lakota ledger drawings. He effortlessly blends this art style into his realistic, authentic depictions of modern Lakota life. An extensive author’s note provides more information about tipis from prehistory to the present and ­information about Nelson’s own family. Also appended are a photo of a Lakota beaded dress (circa 1900) and tipis in use during the Standing Rock protest. NAOMI R. CALDWELL

The Song That Called Them Home
by David A. Robertson; illus. by Maya McKibbin
Primary    Tundra    48 pp.
4/23    9780735266704    $24.99
e-book ed.  9780735266711    $11.99

On an ordinary summer day, Lauren and her younger brother, James, go to the lake with Moshom, their grandfather. After the long journey, Moshom lies down for a nap. Hungry and impatient, the children decide to take their canoe out to fish. Suddenly, the boat tips over and James is taken away by the ­Memekwesewak (“little people”). Lauren pursues them, swimming through “a watery pathway” to another world. Finally, she meets up with James and they dance with the Memekwesewak “for hours that turned into days,” forgetting everything else until they hear their grandfather’s distant cry: “Way-oh, hey, hey / …Come back! Hear my welcome song! / My beating drum will guide you home!” According to the appended author’s note, “Indigenous communities across Turtle Island have stories of the Memekwesewak…[who] live between the rocks, the rapids, amid the trees of the land that provides us with life.” McKibbin’s (“a Two-Spirited Ojibwe, Yoeme, and Irish settler ­artist”) illustrations depict them as white, ­wraithlike beings and use dark purples and blues to signal when the children have entered the underwater world. Norway House Cree Nation member Robertson here provides readers with a satisfying story about the strength of family bonds, persistence, and determination. NICHOLL DENICE MONTGOMERY

Just like Grandma
by Kim Rogers; illus. by Julie Flett
Primary     Heartdrum/HarperCollins    32 pp.
1/23    9780063049246    $17.99

Becca emulates her grandmother by learning to bead, painting a sunrise, and dancing at the powwow. Her grandmother joyfully shares skills, cultural traditions, and affection; in a refreshing twist, Grandma also learns from her granddaughter as they shoot hoops while Becca practices for basketball tryouts. Grandpa appears regularly throughout, most often preparing food for them all. Debut author Rogers (Wichita and Affiliated Tribes) successfully blends both traditional and contemporary aspects of life for this family, offering a sense of what being part of an Indigenous community can mean. The text is spare and poetic, primarily describing the relationship between grandmother and grandchild but also delivering a small sports-related tale. (After a successful tryout, Becca and her grandparents go out for pizza.) Cree-Métis artist Flett (Still This Love Goes On, rev. 11/22) gives life and depth to the text with her stunning mixed-media illustrations. Spreads resemble collage with layers of color and texture. The book provides a valuable opportunity for readers of all backgrounds to reflect on what they can learn from an older generation. Handsome book design, eloquent text, and an authentic portrayal of its subject make this a welcome addition to collections. MAEVE VISSER KNOTH

A Letter for Bob
by Kim Rogers; illus. by Jonathan Nelson
Primary    Heartdrum/HarperCollins    32 pp.
9/23    9780063044555    $19.99

A Wichita girl, Katie, writes a letter to Bob, her family’s trustworthy white sedan, after it’s determined they need to trade it in for a larger vehicle. Katie describes how they cared for the car with tune-ups and fender-bender repairs and kept Bob clean and shiny. She ­reminisces about the many ways Bob helped her family: taking them to the hospital when little sister Jenna was born, going to the library, visiting friends, attending the Oklahoma State Fair and the Wichita Annual Dance, and getting to school — all were made possible by reliable Bob. Readers also experience trips to Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Tetons, where Bob helps them speed away from a large moose. “You brought us there and back all in one piece.” Katie remembers journeys to Powwow, especially her first experience dancing as a tiny tot. The narrative of the many uses of Bob provides a universal story line with which many children can identify while also matter-of-factly incorporating activities specific to Indigenous families. The engaging illustrations show Bob as a standard car without eyes, mouth, or other human features, and yet Katie’s heartfelt narrative enables readers to imagine Bob as an actual family member. Appended with a glossary of Cherokee and Wichita terms. NAOMI R. CALDWELL

From the November 2023 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

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