Middle-grade-and-up for Native American Heritage Month

November is Native American Heritage Month. The following new books for middle-graders and middle-schoolers, all written by Indigenous creators, offer variety and depth in their depictions of Native characters and lives. See also Five Questions for Thomas King about Borders; reviews of An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States for Young People and Everything You Wanted to Know About Indians but Were Afraid to Ask: Young Readers Edition; and lots more recent books, articles, and links.

by Joseph Bruchac
Intermediate, Middle School    Dial    160 pp.    g
1/21    978-1-9848-1537-8    $16.99
e-book ed.  978-1-9848-1538-5    $9.99

“There’s no story more important to the People of the Longhouse, the Haudenosaunee (or Iroquois) Nations than that of the Peacemaker.” The Peacemaker story has been told for centuries, and while major features remain the same, individual storytellers can add their own spins. Bruchac relates the tale through the eyes of twelve-year-old Okwaho, whose family broke off from the conflict-riddled “big village,” Onondaga. Okwaho and his friend Tawis are out hunting when Tawis is kidnapped by men from a neighboring nation. Consumed with anger and guilt, Okwaho wishes to seek revenge, while the village adults contemplate rejoining Onondaga for safety. Chief Atatarho will allow them to return only if everyone in the village successfully runs the gauntlet — a difficult task. Then a stranger appears with a message from the Peacemaker. Through the eyes of a preteen boy, readers come to understand the losses that resulted from the wars between Native nations. The Peacemaker story affected not only the Iroquois Nation but also the United States itself. In his appended note, Bruchac states that the tale was “admired by such Founding Fathers as Benjamin Franklin [and] held up as one of the models for the United States Constitution and American democracy in general.” NICHOLL DENICE MONTGOMERY

Rez Dogs
by Joseph Bruchac
Intermediate, Middle School    Dial    192 pp.    g
6/21    978-0-593-32621-3    $16.99
e-book ed.  978-0-593-32623-7    $9.99

In this verse novel, Malian, a Penacook girl, is visiting her grandparents on the Penacook reservation when shelter-in-place orders are given due to COVID-19. Malian misses her parents and friends, but she spends time with a dog that has mysteriously appeared, and she enjoys listening to her grandparents’ retellings of traditional stories. They also tell her about some of the more difficult parts of their history that have affected their nation, such as boarding schools and forced sterilizations, all touched on by Bruchac (Peacemaker, rev. 7/21) in an accessible and age-appropriate way. Ultimately, Malian’s grandparents remind her that their people have survived pandemics before, through caring for one another. Young readers will be able to understand Malian’s situation, including technological struggles in connecting to her remote classroom. The book’s ending — in which Malian waits eagerly but with mixed emotions for her parents to pick her up — raises relatable questions of home, friendship, and belonging. NICHOLL DENICE MONTGOMERY

The Sea in Winter
by Christine Day
Intermediate, Middle School    Heartdrum/HarperCollins    256 pp.    g
1/21    978-0-06-287204-3    $16.99
Paper ed.  978-0-06-307822-2    $12.99
e-book ed.  978-0-06-287206-7    $8.99

“My ballet studio has always been my sanctuary.” In October, twelve-year-old Maisie suffered a devastating knee injury and subsequent ACL surgery. Now it’s February, and with hard work and physical therapy she has been cleared to go on a winter-break hiking trip to Washington’s Olympic Peninsula with her parents and younger brother. Maisie’s family is Native — her mom is Makah; her father, who has passed away, was Piscataway; her stepfather, Jack, is an enrolled citizen of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe and eager for their journey to the Elwha River. On vacation, Maisie, in a rush to prove her recovery and without dealing with the emotional fallout from her surgery, reinjures herself. The story takes place primarily over the course of four days, during which we get to know Maisie’s family uncommonly well through quotidian details and worldview-encompassing conversations; secondary characters, too, are nuanced and vividly drawn. Maisie’s pain is specific to her experience while being relatable to many readers going through big life changes. Her alienation, denial, and despair make her eventual opening up feel cathartic and narratively earned. The Pacific Northwest setting is atmospherically described and indicative of this Native blended family’s formative experiences. An appended author’s note provides more details about the Native history touched on in the story. ELISSA GERSHOWITZ

A Snake Falls to Earth
by Darcie Little Badger
Middle School, High School    Levine Querido    352 pp.    g
11/21    978-1-64614-092-3    $18.99
e-book ed.  978-1-64614-114-2    $18.99

This original and suspenseful fantasy explores perceptions and understandings of space, time, identity, environmentalism, communication, and “the rightness of home.” Nina, a human, is determined to translate a haunting Spanish and Lipan Apache oral story passed down by her late great-great-grandmother. Oli, a cottonmouth snake and animal person from the “world of spirits of monsters,” will do anything to save his toad friend Ami, who has become ill because his Earth equivalent species is near extinction. Nina’s and Oli’s worlds are connected; a portal between them has something to do with a “pseudosun” in Oli’s Reflecting World and temperature and magnetic anomalies on Nina’s family land. The two characters eventually unite and together deal with a trickster mockingbird; an untrustworthy internet influencer; severe weather; and the threat of violent, cultish followers of a power-hungry “King” (a.k.a. “the Nightmare”) who aims to be the only immortal left on Earth. They also use magic and learn why Nina’s grandmother’s health mysteriously declines whenever she leaves the family’s land. Chapters alternate in voice and perspective, with the characters’ worlds skillfully delineated and stories masterfully woven together. Modern dialogue, which offers further depth to characterization, intermingles with elements of traditional storytelling and family history, creating an imaginative and multilayered work of speculative fiction. ELISA GALL

Sisters of the Neversea
by Cynthia Leitich Smith
Intermediate    Heartdrum/HarperCollins    320 pp.    g
6/21    978-0-06-286997-5    $16.99
e-book ed.  978-0-06-286999-9    $8.99

In her reimagining of a classic, Smith gives readers a decidedly modern look at the magic, adventure, and mystery of Barrie’s Peter Pan, without its derogatory depictions of Indigenous people. The story opens in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where stepsisters Wendy Darling and Lily Roberts are weathering the fallout of their parents’ marital crisis and conflicting professional ambitions. Ms. Roberts-Darling is Muscogee Creek and is committed to the economic development of her tribe. She’d offered to officially adopt Wendy, but Wendy balked at the idea in deference to her late mother and is heading to New York for the summer with her English financier father. The rifts between the once-inseparable stepsisters and between their parents are not the only ones. Peter Pan (who shows up at the Roberts-Darling residence on a mission to find a storyteller to bring to Neverland) has been deserted by his shadow, who is sick and tired of the boy’s bullying ways. With a generous dose of fairy dust, Wendy and her little brother Michael are whisked off to Neverland, and Lily follows to try to rescue them. In that would-be paradise, there are environmental and humanitarian disasters looming all around, and even the satisfaction of finding a longed-for storyteller is short-lived once Wendy announces that she’s about to turn thirteen and so, by Peter’s own decree, must be fed to a giant crocodile. This smart and engaging middle-grade novel intertwines bits of Barrie’s language, some strong and resourceful Indigenous kids, and themes of the importance of family and the powerful bonds of sisterhood into an original and wholly satisfying bit of magic. LUANN TOTH

Healer of the Water Monster
by Brian Young
Intermediate, Middle School    Heartdrum/HarperCollins    368 pp.    g
5/21    978-0-06-299040-2    $16.99
e-book ed.  978-0-06-299042-6    $8.99

Eleven-year-old Nathan convinces his (divorced) parents to let him stay with his grandmother, Nali (a Navajo word used for paternal relationships, e.g. paternal grandparents), in New Mexico during the summer so he can work on a science experiment. Nali’s mobile home does not have indoor plumbing or electricity, and although this means no cellphone for two months, it is better than spending time with his dad and Dad’s girlfriend. After planting traditional as well as store-bought corn seeds for his experiment, Nathan notices that the traditional seeds are missing. One night he finds a horned toad taking his seeds and follows it into the desert. There he finds a sick water monster. At the same time, Uncle Jet has returned home from the Marines and needs healing as well. Nathan is committed to helping them both. To do that, Nathan must travel to the Third World to meet with the Mother Water Monster. Young does a great job of mixing Navajo lore with current concerns. The water monster represents the many bodies of water that are sick from pollution and overuse; many Navajo men and women have returned home from war sick like Uncle Jet. The book explores how healing must come from both modern and traditional medicines. A glossary helps readers understand the Navajo words and relationships that are important to the story. NICHOLL DENICE MONTGOMERY

From the November 2021 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

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