Berry Song (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers) Written & Illustrated by Michaela Goade
For ages: 4-8 The Earth is a generous planet full of food for all the life that lives on it. In Berry Song, we follow a grandmother and her granddaughter foraging on an island near their home in Alaska. Nature is also dangerous, so grandmother teaches her little one the Berry Song, which is meant to alert any bears nearby and scare them off. It also introduces the girl to the names of the berries they pick: “Salmonberry, Cloudberry, Blueberry, Nagoonberry. Huckleberry, Soapberry, Strawberry, Crowberry.” The lesson from grandmother is one of communication and balance with the planet. The pair take in every detail they can: the sound of insect wings, the feel of moss on the branches, the scent of the cedar trees.
The Water Protectors (Roaring Brook Press) Written by Carole Lindstrom Illustrated by Michaela Goade
For ages: 3-7 Indigenous people have long been protectors of the natural world against industrial expansion. Recently, the Dakota Pipeline was the focus of years of protests by native groups trying to keep their water sources free of contamination. The young unnamed narrator tells us how “water was the first medicine,” the origin of life in all communities. She tells of a prophecy about a black snake who would come to poison the land, and this turns out to be a pipeline pumping oil. The imagery here is gorgeous, rich with metaphor, and incredibly evocative. Throughout the text, the idea of community responsibility and ancestry is emphasized. Students will walk away realizing they are part of a continuum that goes back generations, so they need to think about how they leave this world for the generations to come.
For ages: 3-7 In Cherokee, the phrase “Otsalihelgia” means “we are grateful,” It is a sentiment shown towards each day of life and the passing of time. Author Traci Sorrell was raised in the Cherokee Nation and presents a story about the seasons that also showcases how modern Cherokee life continues many of the traditions of their ancestors. Through a folk art style provided by Frane Lessac, we watch Cherokee people participate in contemporary life: dad’s staying at home to raise kids, a relative in the military deployed. This is intermixed with seasonal rites of passage & traditions like planting strawberries, playing stickball, and holding special community meals. The text also includes a glossary for the Cherokee words used, which helps expand the learning that can be done with this great book.
Bowwow Powwow (Minnesota Historical Society Press) Written by Brenda J. Child/Translated to Ojibwe by Gordon Jourdain Illustrated by Jonathan Thunder
For ages: 3-7 Windy Girl loves many things: Her dog Itchy Boy, her Uncle, and the annual Powwow. She rides around in Uncle’s truck listening to him tell stories about his youth on the reservation. When they arrive, Windy Girl begins to imagine what this big event would be like if the dogs ran it. She imagines the animals running the food stalls, wearing ornate costumes, and engaging in tribal dances. Author Brenda Child has worked with Gordon Jourdain to translate the entire book into Ojibwe, so students get a chance to not just learn about the customs of this particular people but also see their language side by side with English.
For ages: 3-7 First Laugh introduces readers from outside Navajo traditions to a unique cultural experience. For a Navajo family, their baby’s first laugh is a celebratory moment. The book follows a family as they anticipate this moment. Baby yawns and cries but hasn’t laughed yet. The family is shown living in a contemporary urban space with both parents working while Grandmother attends to the baby. Older siblings help take care as we see a beautiful depiction of an intergenerational household. The family also retreats to a rural area where Baby is bound upon a cradleboard as the parents attend to chores around the land. First Laugh reminds us of the beauty in everyday acts, showing how even a baby’s laugh is something to cherish. Unfortunately, author Rose AnnTahe passed away before her debut book was published. Still, she’s left behind a reminder of what we can learn from indigenous people. Celebrate every moment of life as time passes way too quickly.
For ages: 4-8 Award-winning musician Robbie Robertson tells a story close to his First Nations heritage. Hiawatha’s family is killed by an enemy tribe while hunting. This sends the man into a place of despair until the mysterious Peacemaker arrives to offer him hope. This Native wise man guides Hiawatha in forming the Iroquois Confederacy and working through his grief & anger. David Shannon makes many appearances on this list, providing colorful, dynamic illustrations for this beautiful story. The founding of this united tribal group would prove to have significant ramifications, working as a blueprint for America’s founding fathers when they penned the Constitution. One of the most engaging texts I’ve worked on with students.
For ages: 4-8 From the Algonquin people comes this variation on the Cinderella fairy tale. On the shores of Lake Ontario lives an invisible man. All the women in the region wanted to marry him. He was supposedly very handsome, rich, and powerful. The only way to marry him, though, is to prove to his ever-present sister that you have seen him. Woman after woman fails to prove it until the strange rough-faced girl comes to visit. The art here by David Shannon will shock those familiar with his cartoon-ier work; it’s incredibly effective and dark at some points. It’s also a Cinderella story in the most fundamental concept and is its own very engaging tale. Students will be left with a powerful message about the difference between honesty over dishonesty.
Encounter (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers) Written by Jane Yolen Illustrated by David Shannon
For ages: 6-9 The story of Christopher Columbus and his arrival in the New World has seen a lot of clarification in the last few decades. Legendary author Jane Yolen delivers an emotionally moving story of Columbus’s arrival told from the perspective of an indigenous child. The narrator sees both the beauty and the horror of what is happening to their home in some truly effective illustrations courtesy of David Shannon. Yolen has composed a story that is age-appropriate for primary students while not softening the blow of the harm done by the famous explorer. Encounter is a story both children & adults need to hear, and it’s an essential part of reckoning with our past to make a better future.