Tuesday, December 01, 2020

2020: AICL's Best Books of 2020

This is the time of the year when annual "Best of" booklists come out. AICL has published our own Best Books lists for many years now. We like to make sure teachers have those suggestions as they think about what to bring into their classrooms. And as the winter holidays approach, we want families to know what's new and good in books with Native content, that they can give to the young people in their lives.

The year 2020 has been difficult for us at AICL. We've only been able to create 38 posts. We've read some books that we like and haven't yet created reviews for, but will list them below and when we can we'll get a review done. We also find ourselves in the unusual position of not having been able to get to all the 2020 books by Native creators -- this may be one of most prolific years ever for publications by Native and First Nations writers and illustrators. So we promise to add to the Best Books list as we have a chance to read the ones we may have missed. 

In not posting reviews for all books on our Best Books list, we realize we are asking you to trust us but we hope that 15 years of work on AICL demonstrates that our assessments are careful and attentive to children and how they may be impacted by the Native content in a book. 

That said, below is AICL's list of Best Books published in 2020. Books are arranged by age of reader but any book in any category can--and should be--read by every reader. Teens and adults can gain tremendously by studying the words and illustrations in a picture book and you can share content of middle or young adult books with younger children. 

In parenthesis following the names of individuals, we provide information about their tribal nation. We use information that the individual uses. Some writers say they are an "enrolled citizen" and some say "tribal member." Some only list a nation (or more than one) but due to those nation's determinations of its citizenry, there are people who can't be enrolled or claim to be citizens of any nation. They are, however, recognized by people of those nations. 

We hope you share our list with parents, teachers, librarians, caregivers, professors... anybody who works with children and books! Don't miss Best Books of previous years! And if there is a book that we did not list, please submit a comment to let us know. 

Best Books of 2020
American Indians in Children's Literature

Books by Native Writers or Illustrators

Comics and Graphic Novels
  • Vermette, Katherena (Metis). Illustrated by Scott B. Henderson & Donovan Yaciuk. A Girl Called Echo, Vol. 3: Northwest Resistance. Highwater Press. Canada

Board Books

Picture Books
  • Baker, Darryl (Inuit). Kamik Takes the Lead illustrated by Ali Hinch. Inhabit Media, Canada.
  • Begay-Kroupa, Jolyana (Navajo). Becoming Miss Navajo. Salina Bookshelf. US.
  • Brink, Heather (Ojibwe), illustrated by Jordan Rodgers (Lakota). Rez Dog. Black Bears and Blueberries. US.
  • Callaghan, Jodie (Listuguj First Nation). The Train. Second Story Press. Canada.
  • Cooper, Nancy (Band member of the Chippewas of Rama First Nation. E Meshkwadooniged mitig/Trading Tree illustrated by Heather Charles (Member of the Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation), translated by Myrtle Jamieson (Waaseyaankwot Kwe). The Prince's Trust and Clear Water Farm, Canada.
  • Erdrich, Louise (Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians). The Range Eternal, paintings by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher). University of Minnesota Press. US.
  • Gyetxw, Hetxw'ms (Gitxsan) The Eagle Mother, illustrated by Natasha Donovan. Highwater Press. Canada. [Note: the author includes his English name, Brett D. Huson, in parenthesis after his Native name. For our list, we put an author's tribal nation in parenthesis.]
  • Lindstrom, Carole (Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians), illustrated by Michaela Goade (Tlingit, member of the Kiks.ådi Clan). We Are Water Protectors. Roaring Brook Press. US.
  • Sammurtok, Nadia (Inuit), illustrated by Lenny Lishchenko (Ukrainian/Canadian). In My Anaana's Amuatik. Inhabit Media. Canada.
  • Smith, Monique Gray (Cree/Lakota), illustrated by Nicole Neidhardt (Diné), translated by Mildred Waters (Diné). When We Are Kind. Orca Books. 

For Middle Grades
  • Note from Debbie on Nov 28, 2023: Due to my concerns over Art Coulson's claim of being Cherokee, I am no longer recommending his books.  Coulson, Art (Cherokee), illustrations by Carlin Bear Don't Walk (Crow and Northern Cheyenne). The Reluctant Storyteller. Includes "The Energy of the Thunder Beings" by Art Coulson, illustrated by Roy Boney Jr. (full blood citizen of the Cherokee Nation) and "Cherokee Life Today" by Traci Sorell (enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation). Reycraft Books, US.
  • Day, Christine (enrolled, Upper Skagit). The Sea In Winter. Heartdrum (HarperCollins), U.S. [Note: we read an advanced copy of the book; its official publication date is 2021.]
  • Engleking, Jessica (White Earth Band of Ojibwe), illustrated by Tashia Hart (Red Lake Anishinaabe). Peggy Flanagan: Ogimaa Kwe, Lieutenant Governor. Wise Ink Creative Publishing. US.
  • Ferris, Kade (Turtle Mountain Chippewa and Canadian Metis descent), illustrated by Tashia Hart (Red Lake Anishinaabe). Charles Albert Bender: National Hall of Fame Pitcher. Wise Ink Creative Publishing. US.
  • Hopson, Nasuġraq Rainey (Inupiaq). "The Cabin" in Rural Voices edited by Nora Shalaway Carpenter, Candlewick Press. US.
  • Peacock, Thomas (Ojibwe). The Wolf's Trail: An Ojibwe Story, Told by Wolves. Holy Cow! Press. US.
  • Pokiak-Fenton, Margaret-Olemaun (Inuvialuk of the Inuvialuit) and Christy Jordan-Fenton. Fatty Legs (10th Anniversary Edition). Annick Press. 2020.
  • Rogers, Andrea L. (Cherokee). Mary and the Trail of Tears: A Cherokee Removal Story. Stone Arch Books (Capstone). US.
  • Sorell, Traci. (Enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation). "The Way of the Anigiduwagi" illustrated by MaryBeth Timothy (Cherokee), in The Talk: Conversations about Race, Love & Truth edited by Wade Hudson and Cheryl Willis Hudson. Random House Children's Books. US.
  • Wilson, Diane (Dakota Mdewakanton Oyate enrolled on the Rosebud Reservation), illustrated by Tashia Hart (Red Lake Anishinaabe). Ella Cara Deloria: Dakota Language Protector. Wise Ink Creative Publishing. US.
For High School
  • Boivin, Lisa (Member of the Deninu Kue First Nation). I Will See You Again. Highwater Press. Canada.
  • Gansworth, Eric (Enrolled member of the Onondaga Nation). Apple (Skin to the Core). Levine Querido. US.
  • Little Badger, Darcie (Lipan Apache). Elatsoe. Levine Querido. US. 

Cross-Over Books (Written for adults; appeal to young adults)
  • Harjo, Joy. (Mvskoke). When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through: A Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry. Edited by Joy Harjo. W. W. Norton and Company. US.
  • Kwaymullina, Ambelin. (Palyku of the Pilbara region of Western Australia). Living on Stolen Land. Magabala Books. Australia.
  • Rendon, Marcie. (White Earth Anishinabe). What's an Indian Woman to do? In When the Light of the World was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through: A Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry. Edited by Joy Harjo. W. W. Norton and Company. US.

Books by Writers or Illustrators Who Are Not Native

For Middle Grade
  • LeZotte, Ann Clare. Show Me A Sign. Scholastic.

*We are grateful to readers who write to tell us about errors we make in our lists. We welcome your emails. 


Kristen Suagee-Beauduy said...

Hey, ladies! Thank you so much for this list! I'll be submitting these books to my supervisor for approval for our tribal library in Sells, AZ. I do have a question though (and it takes a long time to ask it).

The question comes from my experiences learning that people whose work I've studied (as an undergraduate American Indian Studies minor and a Cherokee Studies graduate student) claim Cherokee heritage but aren't claimed by our communities--but my professors and I didn't know this because we didn't have insider knowledge. I'm enrolled Cherokee Nation so I have a personal stake in not wanting to promote wannabes, but learning who those wannabes are has only come through getting more involved in my own tribal community. For example, I learned today that it's public information whether folks are enrolled in one of our three federally-recognized tribes--the Cherokee Nation (Oklahoma), United Keetoowah Band (Oklahoma), and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (North Carolina)--but you have to contact the enrollment offices. This past year I met a couple Cherokee genealogists who I can message to ask about folks I'm not familiar with, but before I met them it was hard for me to figure out, as someone who didn't grow up in a Cherokee community, if a person claiming to be Cherokee really was. I started this list of folks I have seen who have written, edited, or illustrated books and have claimed Cherokee blood* but whose claims have been challenged:

Jace Weaver
Allison Hedge Coke
Qwo-Li Driskoll
Erika T. Wurth
Diane Glancy
Paula Gunn Allen
Thomas King
(illustrator) Murv Jacob
Andrea Smith
Ward Churchill
Jacqueline Keener
Jerry Ellis
Owl Goingback
David M. Roundtree

*Blood is important for our community because our ancestors are so well documented. Other tribes don't have that privilege.

The question I'm trying to ask is, how do you figure out these lists for each tribe? Where do you keep that information? As an informationist, how do I start to learn how to vet folks who claim being Native but are outside of my tribal community? Is your knowledge institutional and just learned after decades of scholarship/reading or can you give us tips for doing our own research?

--Kristen Suagee-Beauduy, Library Specialist, Venito Garcia Library

Debbie Reese said...

Good morning, Kristen,

A few years ago, I got a book by two women who claimed to be Cherokee. I wrote to both of them to ask which of the three nations they were citizens of. One wrote back saying she didn't know -- that it was something they said in her family -- and the other never replied. The book was from a very small publisher, so I didn't write about it or them.

If a person is unknown to me, I look around a bit and see what I can glean. If I see other Native people engaging with them in ways that suggest they accept that person's claim, I go with it. When they say they are enrolled or a tribal member or a citizen, I accept that claim. But if I hear from people in that Native Nation or community who write to me and say "that person isn't from here" (or something to that effect), I will do further research. That was the case with John Smelcer.

For clarification: you said there are challenges to the people you listed as having claimed to be Cherokee. As I look over the list, I think that AICL has posts about books by Erika T. Wurth and maybe Thomas King. I'll look and see if there are others.

In one of my research articles, I had cited Andrea Smith's work and identified her as Cherokee. As we know, that claim was not valid. There is a post about her on AICL. In her case, Native scholars accepted her claim. So, I followed their lead. It was painful for everyone when that claim was challenged. Long-standing friendships came to an end.

AICL does not have a place where we keep information on writers. What we know goes onto the blog. There are a lot of conversations happening about claims to being Native. It is highly contentious.

Kristen Suagee-Beauduy said...

Good morning, Dr. Reese,

Thank you for gatekeeping those women who were claiming Cherokee.

And I've learned that looking at folks who are co-authors/editors is hard too because you have people like Daniel Heath Justice who worked with Qwo-Li Driskill on the book Sovereign Erotics but has since distanced himself personally but still keeps the book on his staff bio. Is the high road never mentioning that book again when the work you put in helps you, an Indigenous person, get respect (and money) in the capitalist, white-supremacist world of academia?

Thank you for mentioning John Smelcer--he wasn't someone I had read about before this comment.

I just searched AICL for Erika Wurth and Thomas King. Before I joined an online community of enrolled Cherokees this year, I hadn't heard anything bad about the folks on my list--in fact, non-Cherokee Indigenous Studies professors in my undergrad and graduate programs recommended them to me--and it's a long list! The historical advisors (genealogy experts) in that Facebook group who brought the "fakes" to our attention are the people I ask when I haven't heard about artsy/literary/academic folks claiming to be Cherokee. I can try to connect you to them if you are interested.

Thank you for engaging in this conversation with me. I appreciate you and your work.


Matthew C. Winner said...

Good morning, Dr. Reese! What a fantastic list! I always look forward to checking out your lists and adding to what I've already had the great privilege to read this year. I have a few recommendations I hope will come by your desk soon:

1. SURVIVING THE CITY vol. 2: FROM THE ROOTS UP by Tasha Spillett and Natasha Donovan. The way this comic centers Two-Spirit individuals was something I found particularly affecting.

2. Ispík Kákí Péyakoyak / WHEN WE WERE ALONE by David A. Robertson; illustrated by Julie Flett; translated into Swampy Cree by Alderick Leask of Indigenous Languages of Manitoba Inc. This is one of my favorite picture books of all time and this new edition with taller trim size and dual language text added even greater depth to an already exceptional work.

I'm also currently reading RECKONER RISES volume 1 by David A. Robertson, Scott B. Henderson, and Donovan Yaciuk which is the first volume graphic novel adaptation of Robertson's Indigenous YA series and it is AWESOME!

Thank you always for managing such an outstanding resource to us all through your AICL!



bcatwater said...

Hello, my name is Barbara Jacko Atwater. I am of Dena'ina Indian ethnicity in Alaska. My son and I have been turning fables told to us by our great uncle into childrens books. I was disappointed to see no mention of either of the books we have published.
They both have had good reviews from Kirkus. One CHIA AND THE FOXMAN was just added to EPL's 101 Great Books for Kids list 2020 of which Betsy Bird(was on Newbery committee and Kirkus reviewer)is a part of.
You can look them both up on Amazon for more information or go to https://ww.westmarginpress.com/study-guides and look up each book for even more information.
The books are How Raven Got His Crooked Nose and Chia and the Foxman
Authors: Barbara Jacko Atwater and Ethan Jacko Atwater
Illustrator: Mindy Dwyer
If you would send me an address I can get a copies sent to you for you to look at.
Thank you for making this list. I think it is so important.

Barbara J Atwater

Debbie Reese said...


I read SURVIVING THE CITY and am shaking my head as I realize that I didn't do a review or include it on the list last year. I haven't read volume 2 yet. Your question about the Swampy Cree version of WHEN WE WERE ALONE makes me think that perhaps we ought to have a list somewhere on AICL of books in dual language. Several books have been reissued in a Native language, in the last couple of years. The one that comes to mind is I AM NOT A NUMBER by Jenny Kay Dupuis.


Someone asked me about HOW RAVEN GOT HIS CROOKED NOSE when it came out in 2018. I did a post about it because it looks good! In the "contact" tab of AICL, you will find my email address. Write to me there and we'll get going on books, address, etc.


Anonymous said...

HI Dr Reece,
Another book I would love to see on this list is a new title in Fall of 2020 by David A Robertson, The Barren Grounds. Penguin Random House ISBN: 9780735266100.

I just couldn't put this novel down, once I started reading it. Set in today's world, The Barren Grounds combines elements of fantasy and Cree storytelling, with real, down-to-earth, lovable characters.

Morgan and Eli are two Indigenous young teens, brought together in a foster home in Winnipeg. Morgan has been in foster care as long as she can remember, while Eli is confused – his home community is all he knew until a short month earlier.

Both Morgan and Eli feel disconnected at school and home — until one afternoon, Eli’s drawings seem to open up a secret space for them, another world of snow and neverending icy danger. Setting out on these barren grounds, they meet Ochek (Fisher), a two-legged four-legged fisher. Through Ochek, they begin to travel this world, to help find a way to bring back spring and summer. With its very recognizable Winnipeg setting, and the authentic voices and humour of the Indigenous protagonists, this book is a must read for grades 5 to 8.
All my best wishes,
Laura Cowie,
Manager, Library Support Services,
Winnipeg School Division
Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

JPalmer said...

I just finished reading Elatsoe and it was just wonderful. I teach in NM and having a text by a Lipan author is wonderful. Well written first novel. Jeanette Palmer