Fullness of Humanity: Native Americans in Youth Literature

Super Indian Vol 1, Arigon Starr, Wacky Productions Unlimited, 2012, Dragonfly Kites, Julie Flett, Fifth House Publishers, 2016, The Great Gathering, Seth Muller, Salina Bookshelf, Inc. 2013, Diary of a Part Time Indian, Sherman Alexie, Little Brown Books, 2007

November is Native American Heritage Month in the U.S. I am a youth services librarian in an area that is predominately Native American. I began in this position six months ago, and since then, I have had to take a hard look at the representation of Native Americans in children’s books and media.

The American Indian Library Association gives out youth literature awards biennially to honor books that “present American Indians in the fullness of their humanity in the present and past contexts.” I was really drawn to this way of looking at literature, because what I want for my public is to see their library as a place where they belong. Creating this sense belonging begins with my collection being reflective of their experiences.

There is a woman who comes to my library frequently looking for children’s books that represent Native Americans in current contexts. The first time she came in and asked me for recommendations I couldn’t think of anything outside of Sherman Alexie’s Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. As a librarian, I was embarrassed. This wasn’t an area of children’s literature I knew much about and given my community I needed to change that. So, I started actively seeking out books that fit this description.

img_2846Here is a list of few Indigenous authors that write youth literature and comics from a contemporary Native experience.

Sherman Alexie – Author of Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which follows Junior as he decides to attend high school off the Spokane Reservation at an all-white high school and Thunder Boy Jr., a picture book about a little boy wanting a name and identity all his own.

Jacqueline Guest – Author of Fire Fight, about 16-year-old Kai Hunter who runs away after the death of her grandmother. Along the way she gets tangled in the web of a handsome bad boy.

Tomson Highway – Author of Dragon Fly Kites (illustrated by Julie Flett) a picture book about two brothers harnessing the power of imaginative play.

Joseph Marshall III – Author of In the Footsteps of Crazy Horse, which follows Jimmy McClean, a Lakota boy, as he goes on a journey with his grandfather to learn more about his heritage. In particular, the story of Crazy Horse.

Seth Muller – Author of the Windclaw Chronicles (illustrated by Bahe Whitethorne Jr.), a trilogy about Ellie Tsosie who begins to realize the birds near her home have formed a magical world and a mission for her.

Arigon Starr – Creator of Super Indian, a comic about Hubert Logan who gains superpowers from tainted commodity cheese and uses them to fight the forces that try to overtake the Reservation.

Theo Tso – Author of Captain Paiute: Indigenous Defender of the Southwest, which follows a college student with a mysterious childhood as he fights for justice.

Richard Van Camp – Author of Lesser Blessed, a coming of age story about Larry, a Dogtrib Indian, and his newfound friendship with Johnny, a Metis. And Little You (illustrated by Julie Flett), a board book about children and the adults who care for them.

These are just a few of the authors I’ve really enjoyed, and I’ve still more to find and learn about. For more work by indigenous authors I recommend the American Indians in Children’s Literature blog by Debbie Reese, and her #NativeReads list created in partnership with the First Nations Development Institute. I also recommend the following publishers:

Native Realities
Salina Bookshelf
Orca Books
Lee and Low Books

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