November is a complicated time in elementary schools. Where I work, the first quarter of the year is wrapping up, conferences are happening, and the trepidation is setting in as I observe teachers around the school roll out their different ways of teaching about the settler holiday of Thanksgiving. It would help to have a history-conscious consensus about how we’ll address this lesson (don’t get me started on the dearth of social studies curriculum, good or bad), but lacking that, the most important thing I feel I can add is Indigenous perspective. My favorite way to add this perspective is with books.
Do not wait until November, of course, to start reading Indigenous picture books. I fell into this habit as a new librarian, excited to ditch my outdated, whitewashed Thanksgiving books and share the wealth of Indigenous stories I had searched up. But we live on Native land all year long, and we should be sharing their stories without pause. Students need to understand that American Indians are infinitely more than a prop in a Thanksgiving show, and see how Native people are still (despite settler-inflicted trauma) thriving in our communities in modern times. Below, I’ve collected some of my favorite recent releases from talented authors Indigenous to North America. You’ll notice some running themes, but mostly, you’ll realize you want more, more, more.
Outstanding Native and Indigenous Picture Books
We Are Water Protectors by Carole Lindstrom and Michaela Goade
This story is about power. The power of water to give us life. The power of outside forces to endanger what brings life. And the power of people to protect the water. In the spirit of many Indigenous-led movements to protect our natural resources, this book empowers young people at every step, from it’s bold cover to it’s anthem-like words.
You Hold Me Up by Monique Gray Smith and Danielle Daniel
Celebrating the simple ways we can show up for one another, You Hold Me Up is tender and playful all at once. I’ve found this title sparks great conversations with even the youngest children, and I love helping them identify the people (and animals!) that hold them up in their everyday lives. The slightly abstract illustrations are a great compliment to the simple text.
A Day with Yayah by Nicola I. Campbell and Julie Flett
On the surface, A Day With Yayah seems to be a simple story about a girl and her grandmother out in the forest. Digging deeper, it becomes clear that this is a story about intergenerational knowledge, language preservation, and the general timeless wisdom of elders. Important themes pair with dreamy, folk-like illustrations to make this a book that demands to be read more than once.
Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story by Kevin Noble Maillard and Juana Martinez-Neal
Fry Bread is a recipe book, a family book, a read-aloud, and a book that begs to be studied one-on-one. As with many books written by members of the societies they represent, the backmatter and author’s note lend helpful perspective. It becomes clear that the word choice and illustrations are deliberate and meaningful.
We Sang You Home by Richard Van Camp and Julie Flett
This gorgeous book about the relationship between young children and their parents pairs lyrical text with vivid illustrations. Replace your favorite baby shower book gift with this title today!
Bowwow Powwow by Brenda J Child and Jonathan Thunder
Where so many books on this list are about depth of feeling, Bowwow Powwow is an adventure story. Windy Girl and her dog, Itchy Boy attend a powwow with Uncle. On the car ride home, Windy’s dreams reflect the excitement of the day — powerful dancers, delicious food, thrilling stories…a powwow you can never forget.
My Heart Fills With Happiness by Monique Gray Smith and Julie Flett
A board book continuing the themes of gratitude, reverence of nature, and simple joy. Even the beaming yellow cover fills one with happiness. Monique Gray Smith is always able to express huge feelings in spare sentences, and her talent is on display here.
We All Play by Julie Flett
If there is anything the youngest people of the world need right now, it is PLAY. This new picture book invites children to compare their playful romps with the movements of the natural world! I picture an active, joyful story time as little readers chase like birds and wobble like bears.
We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga by Traci Sorrell and Frane Lessac
I first discovered this book when I was looking for an alternative book to share with my students during the American Thanksgiving season. This is a perfect book that hits on so many levels — the passing of the seasons, the many things to be grateful for, and images of modern Cherokee families. There are pronunciation guides and a Cherokee syllabary graciously provided in the backmatter.
I hope you’ve found some new books to add to the library of your choice. Whether you’re gifting books to young people in your life, working to expand your choice of read-alouds in the classroom, or simply trying to support Indigenous authors, these books will get you closer to your goal! Happy reading!