Wednesday, December 01, 2021

AICL's Best Books of 2021

A Sample of AICL's Best Books of 2021

Those who study and write about children's books will mark 2021 as a significant year because it is the year that Heartdrum (an imprint of HarperCollins) released several books written and illustrated by Native people. Heartdrum's first book, The Sea In Winter by Christine Day (enrolled, Upper Skagit), is outstanding. We read an advanced copy of it in 2020 and highly recommended it. You will find it below, along with several books we read from Heartdrum. What Heartdrum represents is important. Cynthia Leitich Smith (Muscogee Creek) brought it into existence. For all that she has done, she was named as the recipient of the 2021 NSK Neustadt Prize for Children's Literature. Three of her books were republished this year. In our articles, book chapters, and presentations, we usually include one or more of her books. We're pleased to see the new updated versions and you'll find them listed below. 

The persistence of Native peoples who write, speak, and challenge the status quo in other ways is significant. Those who support Native people in that work matter, too. An example is Arthur A. Levine, who launched Levine Querido in 2019. They published Anton Treuer's Everything You Wanted to Know about Indians But Were Afraid to Ask: Young Reader's Edition in April. Last year, they published Apple (Skin to the Core) by Eric Gansworth (Onondaga), which is on the National Book Award Longlist for 2020. It is joined this year at Levine Quierido by A Snake Falls to Earth by Darcie Little Badger (Lipan Apache). 

In an effort to keep track of accomplishments of Native people working in children's literature, we started Milestones: Indigenous Peoples in Children's Literature. We invite you to look it over, and share with others. And of course, we invite you to visit and share our page of Best Books

Two topics generated a great deal of conversation in 2021. We mention each one, briefly. First is pretendians, or, race shifting. The identity of writers we have previously recommended has come under question. We are considering how and when we might write about these questions. In the meantime, you can visit our page of resources, Native? Or Not? A Resource List. The second topic is a growing awareness amongst non-Native people of Native children who died at residential and boarding schools in Canada and the U.S. In June of 2021, reports of hundreds of unmarked graves on the grounds (or nearby) of the schools appeared in news media in Canada, and Interior Secretary Haaland announced an investigation in the U.S. We compiled a list of recommended materials that includes children's books, nonfiction for high school and adult readers, websites, and videos: Resources: Boarding and Residential Schools. We update those two pages when we find additional resources.

As was the case last year, we are not able to read and write a review of every book we've read. We try! If there is something you want us to take a look at, let us know. Over time we'll be revisiting and adding to the list we share today. As we look over it, we are pleased to see biographies of women of modern times! Though our books are listed below in distinct categories, we encourage you to use picture books with all readers--including adults--and hope that everyone who works with children or books will read all the books. Doing so can help you become better able to know who we are, and that knowledge can help you see stereotyping and misrepresentations. 

We hope you order these books for your classroom or school or home library.

--Debbie and Jean

Books Written or Illustrated by Native People

Comics and Graphic Novels 

Vermette, Katherena (Red River Metis). A Girl Called Echo, Vol. 4: Road Allowance Era, illustrated by Scott B. Henderson; Colors by Donovan Yaciuk. Highwater Press, Canada.

Board Books

Vickers, Roy Henry (Tsimshian, Haida and Heiltsuk) and Robert Budd, A Is For Anemone: A First West Coast Alphabet, illustrated by Roy Henry Vickers. Harbour Publishing, Canada. 

Picture Books 

Coulson, Art (Cherokee), Look, Grandma! Ni, Elisi! illustrated by Madelyn Goodnight (Chickasaw Nation). Charlesbridge, US.

Davids, Sharice (Ho-Chunk) with Nancy Mays (not Native). Sharice's Big Voice: A Native Kid Becomes a Congresswoman, illustrated by Joshua Mangeshig Pawis-Steckley (member of Wasauksing, First Nation). Harper Collins, US.

Gyetsxw Hetx'wms (Brett D. Huson) (Gitxsan). The Wolf Mother, illustrated by Natasha Donovan (Metis). Portage & Main Press, Canada.

Gyetsxw Hetx'wms (Brett D. Huson) (Gitxsan). The Frog Mother, illustrated by Natasha Donovan (Metis). Portage & Main Press, Canada.

Lajimodiere, Denise (Citizen, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa), Josie Dances, illustrated by Angela Erdrich (Citizen, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa). Minnesota Historical Society Press, US.

Luby, Brittany (Anishinaabe descent), Mii maanda ezhi gkendmaanh (This Is How I Know), illustrated by Joshua Mangeshig Pawis-Steckle(member of Wasauksing First Nation), translated by Alvin Ted Corbiere and Alan Corbiere (Anishinaabe from M'chigeeng First Nation). Groundwood Books, Canada.

Peacock, Thomas (Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe). The Fire, illustrated by Anna Granholm. Black Bears and Blueberries, US.
Robertson, David A. (Member, Norway House Cree Nation), On the Trapline, illustrated by Julie Flett (Cree-Métis). Tundra Books, Canada.

Smith, Cynthia Leitich (Muscogee Nation), Jingle Dancer illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu, Heartdrum, 2021.

Sorell, Traci (Cherokee), Classified: The Secret Career of Mary Golda Ross, Cherokee Aerospace Engineer, illustrated by Natasha Donovan (Métis). Millbrook Press, U.S.

Spillett-Sumner, Tasha (Inninewak (Cree) and Trinidadian), I Sang You Down from the Stars, illustrated by Michaela Goade (enrolled member of the Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska). Little Brown Books for Young Readers, US.

Weatherford, Carole Boston (not Native). Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre, illustrated by Floyd Cooper (Black and Muscogee). Carolrhoda Books, US.

Early Chapter Books

Quigley, Dawn (Citizen, Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe), Jo Jo Makoons, The Used-to-Be Best Friend, illustrated by Tara Audibert (Wolastoqey). Heartdrum, US.

Smith, Cynthia Leitich (Muscogee Nation), Indian Shoes illustrated by MaryBeth Timothy (Cherokee). Heartdrum, US.

For Middle Grades 

Cutright, Patricia (Enrolled member, Cheyenne River Sioux). Native Women Changing Their Worlds. 7th Generation, US. 

Engelking, Jessica (White Earth Band of Ojibwe descent). Peggy Flanagan: Omigaakwe, Lieutenant Governor, illustrated by Tashia Hart (Red Lake Anishinaabe). Minnesota Humanities Center, US.

Ferris, Kade (Turtle Mountain Chippewa and Canadian Metis descent), Charles Albert Bender: National Hall of Fame Pitcher, illustrated by Tashia Hart (Red Lake Anishinaabe). Minnesota Humanities Center, US.

Hutchinson, Michael (Misipawistik Cree Nation), The Case of the Burgled Bundle: A Mighty Muskrats Mystery. Second Story Press, Canada. 

Smith, Cynthia Leitich (Muscogee Nation). Sisters of the Neversea, cover by Floyd Cooper (Black and Muscogee Nation). Heartdrum, US.

Wilson, Diane (Dakota). Ella Cara Deloria: Dakota Language Protector, illustrated by Tashia Hart (Red Lake Anishinaabe). Minnesota Humanities Center, US.

Young, Brian (Navajo). Healer of the Water Monster, illustrated by Shonto Begay (Navajo). Heartdrum, US.

For High School

Belin, Esther, Jeff Berglund, Connie A. Jacobs, and Anthony K. Webster (editors). The Diné Reader: An Anthology of Navajo Literature. University of Arizona Press, US.

Boulley, Angeline (Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians), Firekeeper's Daughter, cover by Moses Lunham, Ojibwe. Henry Holt (Macmillan), US.

Campbell, Nicola I. (Nłeʔkepmx, Syilx, and Métis). Spílexm: A Weaving of Recovery, Resilience, and Resurgence. Highwater Press, Canada.

Smith, Cynthia Leitich (Muscogee Nation). Rain Is Not My Indian Name, cover illustration by Natasha Donovan (Métis), Heartdrum, US.

Treuer, Anton (Ojibwe). Everything You Wanted to Know About Indians But Were Afraid to Ask (Young Reader's Edition). Levine Querido, US.

Cross-Over Books (written for adults; appeal to young adults) 

Harjo, Joy and Howe, LeAnne (eds.) When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through: A Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry, cover by Emmi Whitehorse (Navajo), WW. Norton and Company, US.

Peacock, Thomas D. (Ojibwe). Walking Softly. Dovetailed Press, US.

Books Written or Illustrated by non-Native People

Picture Books

Hannah-Jones, Nikole and Renée Watson, Born on the Water: The 1619 Project, illustrated by Nikkolas Smith. Kokila, US. 

For High School

Johnson, George M. All Boys Aren't Blue: A Memoir Manifesto. Cover art by Charly Palmer. Farrar Straus Giroux, US.

Kiely, Brendan. the OTHER talk: reckoning with our my white privilege. Simon & Schuster, US.

Tuesday, November 30, 2021


 Nenaboozhoo and the Elk's Head
Nenaboozhoo miinawaa Adik Odishtigwaan
Written by Dr. Giniwgiizhig (enrolled, White Earth) and Niizhobines (Ojibwe)
Illustrated by Anna Granholm
Published by Black Bears and Blueberries
Published in 2021
Reviewer: Jean Mendoza
Status: Highly Recommended

Nenaboozhoo is a prominent figure in the Anishinaabe traditional stories that have been published over the years. He appears in several picture books published in the past couple of years. I hope to review all of them eventually, but today I'm taking a "short and sweet" look at just one: Nenaboozhoo and the Elks's Head/Nenaboozhoo miinawaa Adik Odishtigwaan

Here's my quick summary of the story:

Nenaboozhoo tricks an elk into lending him a beautiful bow and arrow, and then kills the elk for food. The trees that witness this treachery let their displeasure be known, but Nenaboozhoo is quite pleased with himself. Before long, though, he gets his comeuppance, as he often does, showing listeners how NOT to act. 

I'd recommend this story for upper elementary age children, and older. 

First reason to recommend this book: Native people are involved at all levels of its publication. It's an Ojibwe traditional story retold in a collaboration between Dr. Giniwgiishig (a school principal) and Niizhobines, an Ojibwe elder and storyteller. It's bilingual, in English and Ojibwemowin. And the publisher is the Native-owned non-profit Black Bears and Blueberries. 

Second reason:  The book has a mission. Initially the story was part of the Indian Education Curriculum for Red Lake (MN) School District #38. The front matter includes this dedication:

This endeavor is for our children so that they will know who they are and where they come from and to learn our language so they will be strong and proud that they are Anishinaabe and stand up and lead and succeed.

There's another statement in the front matter of this book and several of the others mentioned under my Reason 4, below: "The stories in these books are told only when snow is on the ground and a tobacco offering is made." This tells the reader that even though this story and others like it are engaging, the sharing of them is important enough that there's a protocol for doing so. They were never intended just for amusement.  

Third reason: Kids who aren't Anishinaabe can engage with and learn from the book, too. Just seeing Ojibwemowin in print can affirm for them that specific Indigenous languages exist and have value -- Native people don't just "talk Indian". Like many traditional stories, this one is an opportunity for considering how to treat others, and how a person's self-centered actions can have uncomfortable consequences.  

Fourth reason to recommend Nenaboozhoo and the Elk's Head: It's just one of several bilingual English-Ojibwemowin books published by Black Bears and Blueberries that belong in classroom libraries. They include:

  • by Dr. Giniwgiishig and Niizhobines -- Why the Bear Has a Short Tail; How the Boy and the Rabbit Helped Each Other; Nenaboozhoo Steals Fire; and When the Boy Was Made into a Whirlwind.  
  • by Liz Granholm -- Rabbit and Otter; Rabbit and Otter go Sugarbushing
  • by Tara Perron -- Animals of Nimaamaa-Aki (Dakota version is Animals of Kheya Wita)

You can find out more about the bilingual books put out by Black Bears and Blueberries on their Web site. 

Highly Recommended: ON THE TRAPLINE by David A. Robertson and Julie Flett


On the Trapline
Written by David A. Robertson (Member, Norway House Cree Nation)
Illustrated by Julie Flett (Cree-Métis)
Published by Tundra Books
Published in 2021
Reviewer: Debbie Reese
Status: Highly Recommended


When most kids visit or travel with a grandparent to a special place, they drive or fly on a commercial airplane. For this trip, this grandfather and grandson start out on a small propeller airplane. 

On the Trapline is based on Robertson's visit--with his father--to his father's trapline. In the book launch he talked about going to that trapline. His father had not been to it since his childhood. Robertson had never seen it. For that father and son, then, it was a special moment when they would be walking, together, on homelands known to the father but not to the son. When his father stepped onto that homeland, Robertson said (in the book launch) that his dad seemed younger. Many of you may have had an experience like that with someone you love. I have. There is a joy that radiates from within. For me, and for Robertson, there is also a quiet to it all. Filled with so much! 

The visit that Robertson and his father took to the trapline became the exquisite picture book, On the Trapline. On the way to the trapline, the grandson asks questions about things he sees, and about things his grandfather talks about. Readers learn, for example, about the school Moshom went to where "all of us had to talk about learn in English." The grandson asks "Did you still get to speak Cree?" and his grandfather replies, "My friends and I snuck into the bush so we could speak our language." That language is on most pages of the book. On the page about Moshom's school, you'll find this sentence:
Ininimowin means "Cree language."
That is a deceptively simple set of words. They seem straightforward, and yet, they are filled with meaning! Here's a bit of the art that Julie Flett created for that page:

See? Children, in the bush. They look like they are playing. I imagine they are--but as they do--they speak to each other in Cree. 

When they get to the trapline, "Moshom's eyes light up." He points and says "That's my trapline." Then, there's more and more and more for this young Cree boy to learn about his grandfather's life on the trapline. 

Robertson and Flett's book received starred reviews from the major review journals. This occurred before, when they worked together on When We Were Alone. As was the case then, I highly recommend you get a copy of On the Trapline. 


Monday, November 29, 2021



Classified: The Secret Career of Mary Golda Ross, Cherokee Aerospace Engineer
Written by Traci Sorell (Cherokee)
Illustrated by Natasha Donovan (Métis)
Published by Millbrook Press
Published in 2021
Reviewer: Debbie Reese
Review Status: Highly Recommended


Sorell's Classified: The Secret Career of Mary Golda, Cherokee Aerospace Engineer is receiving starred reviews from the major children's literature review journals. And, I'll add, with good reason! Sorell is Cherokee. The book, focusing on a Cherokee aerospace engineer, is tribally specific. And people interested in STEM will love what they'll find in this picture book. You can read it aloud, and you can watch the video format where DeLanna Studi provides the narration. Like Sorell, she is Cherokee. 

Back when I was a kid, I liked biographies and I would have liked this biography of Mary Golda Ross. Some things beckon to me in a personal sense. She worked at Santa Fe Indian School as a girls advisor. My parents and grandparents went there, and I taught there for awhile. I didn't know about her, then. From what I can tell, she worked at SFIS after my grandmother was there, and before my parents attended the school. The timeline in the back of the book says she was there to advise female students. These advisors played significant roles! I remember both my parents talking fondly about their advisors.  

The word "classified" is part of the title because Ross was part of the Skunk Works division, which was a top-secret group working on planes that could fly beyond Earth. Hence, "aerospace" is also part of the title. One page of the book says that "She designed concepts for space travel to Venus and Mars" and her work helped send astronauts to the moon! That is, to use a Cherokee word, osdadv! 

I thoroughly enjoyed reading about her, and studying the illustrations Natasha Donovan did for the book. Teachers will love all the materials Sorell has on her webpage for the book. Scroll down to find the Teaching Guide, a Resource Toolkit, and a classroom poster. Scroll down even further to find audio files for Cherokee words. 

Sunday, November 28, 2021


the OTHER talk: reckoning with OUR my white privilege*
by Brendan Kiely, with an introduction by Jason Reynolds
Published by Simon & Schuster
Publication in 2021
Reviewer: Debbie Reese
Review Status: Highly Recommended


In the last few years, the word "reckoning" has appeared a lot. In meaning, it has to do with facing up to truths. Way back in the 1990s when I started graduate school, I read White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh. She was learning whites are taught not to recognize white privilege. It was, she wrote, unacknowledged privilege. It was vivid writing that stuck with me.

As I read Brendan Kiely's the OTHER talk: reckoning with OUR my white privilege, I thought back to McIntosh's essay. It was published in 1989. In a way, what Kiely offers to us, 32 years later, is a more in-depth reckoning. I'm sure McIntosh got push back for what she wrote, and I wonder what sorts of pushback Kiely is getting for his book. We are in a very heated period in society. Social media has been a great tool for social justice but it has also been used in harmful ways. I don't want to go on about that, so I'll turn back to the book.

Those of you who pay attention to visibility or invisibility of groups of people in the US know that one report after another leaves Native people off, or uses an asterisk that says data on us is statistically insignificant, so none is provided. In chapter 15 of the OTHER talk, Kiely writes about an anti-racist training he went to, where Native people were not included in an exercise the group was doing. He and others there did not notice that omission, but then, he writes (p. 154):
The facilitators were about to move on to their next exercise when a Native American woman in the audience stood up. She wanted to know why the racetrack model, why the entire workshop, did not include or allude to, in any way, Indigenous people in the United States. "This," she went on to explain, "is the kind of erasure we face every day." 
Kiely writes that he was floored. The facilitators had not realized what they were doing, and neither had he or other participants. It seems to me that one wave of realization was washing over him when another one struck. What made it all worse, he says, is that the workshop was taking place in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and part of the focus was to acknowledge local Indigenous cultures. Each day, the conference started with a welcome from the Navajo, Apache, or Pueblo Nations. He recounts all that, and more, on those pages. 

There's more to that experience in chapter 15 than what I shared above, but I'm sitting with that particular part of it. It happens to Native people all the time. We're here, right here beside you, and still so unseen, on lands that were/are homelands to Native people. The welcome to the workshop (provided by Native people) feels to me a lot like land acknowledgements. Something is said, and then forgotten.  Kiely's book starts with praise for the book, offered by a wide range of people. I assume his publisher sought out people to write those paragraphs of praise. I can't help but notice there is not a Native person amongst them. That, I think, is unfortunate but also reflects precisely what spoke to me about that passage in chapter 15 of the book. 

I deeply appreciate that Kiely shared that experience in Albuquerque.  There are other reasons why I'm highly recommending the OTHER talk but I'll leave that for you to find, on your own. 

Get a copy and talk about it with others. It is written for young people, but every adult should read it, too. As far as I know, neither Kiely or Jason Reynolds are Native. 

*I was not able to include "my" as a strike-thru on the title for this blog post. It is part of the title of the book. 

Highly Recommended! LOOK GRANDMA! NI, ELISI! by Art Coulson; illustrated by Madelyn Goodnight

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.  

Look, Grandma! Ni, Elisi! 
Written by Art Coulson (Cherokee Nation)
Illustrated by Madelyn Goodnight (Chickasaw Nation)
Published by Charlesbridge
Publication Year: 2021
Reviewed by Debbie Reese
Review Status: Highly Recommended


Look at the cover of Look, Grandma! Ni, Elisi! See the purple rectangle on the top right corner that says "storytelling MATH" in it? This book is a story about math! And I am delighted to share it with AICL's readers. On the first double-paged spread we meet Bo. In his hands is a large stone marble. He's drawn a redbird on it and is showing it to his Uncle Ben. "Osdadv" his uncle says to him. That word is in the glossary at the back of the book. It means very good, or, excellent. Next time you want to say "Awesome" or "Good" or something like that to someone, say osdadv instead. 

Coulson's book offers so much! From teaching you Cherokee words that you can use, to telling you about diyadayosdi (Cherokee marbles). It is a game played with balls that are the size of the ones people use to play pool. In the back of the book, we learn how the game is played and that it is played every year during the Cherokee National Holiday. But there's more! 

In this story, Bo makes the balls. This year, his uncle has told him he can help sell them at their booth at the Cherokee National Holiday. Having been to many Native gatherings where Native people sell traditional and contemporary items they make--and especially right now (November/December)--I wish I was at the ones where my sister and her daughter are selling baked goods! Last week, I was looking at photos of their booth, noticing how they lay out all their goods. Planning what to put, where, and how, is important! That's the task for Bo. He can sell his marbles but he needs a container for them and it has to be a specific size. What we have, in Coulson's story, is an exercise in volume. Bo has to find just the right container for his marbles. When I started out teaching way back in the 1980s, I taught kindergarten and first grade. I would have loved to use this book with my students! In addition to the glossary in back and information about the game, there's a page about volume, and some "Try This!" STEM activities.

Get a copy! And give a copy to a teacher during this holiday season. And if you sell Native books at a holiday gathering, put Coulson's book on that table!

I highly recommend Look, Grandma! Ni, Elisi!