#OwnVoices in Indigenous Picture Books

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#OwnVoices in Indigenous Picture Books

While there’s a wealth of picture books depicting the Native American experience, many of them are by white authors. The importance of #OwnVoices works, particularly when it comes to pieces for children who may not yet have the skills to determine what is an accurate portrayal of Native life and culture, is clear. These books are about Native Americans by Native Americans. While each experience may not be universal for indigenous people or, indeed, for a tribe, these #OwnVoices stories carry much more weight than stories of the Native experience by white authors.

“Fall in Line, Holden!” by Daniel W. Vandever (illustrated by Daniel W. Vandever)
An acknowledgement of the damage boarding school education had on Indigenous communities in the United States, this bold picture book tells the short journey of Holden, who, with his classmates, walks through his school and imagines the everyday mundane as the extraordinary. The women preparing lunch in the cafeteria are witches in Holden’s imagination; the children playing in the gymnasium noble warriors in battle. As he breaks from the walking line, a disembodied voice -- presumably of a teacher -- reminds him to “fall in line,” but readers will discover the benefits of doing just the opposite by the end of this enchanting work.

The Spirit Trackers by Jan Bourdeau Waboose (illustrated by François Thisdale)
In this Anishinaabe tale, cousins Tom and Will are staying with their uncle, who tells a most excellent and chilling tale of the Windigo, the “Wandering Night Spirit of Winter” who is “to be feared.” When the boys are off to sleep, a noise wakes them and sends them on a tracking journey. The boys encounter beings that spook them, but are any the Windigo? This slightly chilling tale is accompanied by cool and fitting blue-toned illustrations and a number of Ojibway words and told by a “First Nation Anishinaabe of the Ojibway Bear Clan from northern Ontario.”

Jingle Dancer by Cynthia Leitich Smith (illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu)
As the powwow approaches, Jenna only has one wish: to dance as Grandma Wolfe with a dress full of jingles. But there is no time to order jingles for her dress, so Jenna approaches the women of her family and asks to borrow one row of jingles each to complete her dress. While Jenna makes her rounds, readers are introduced to a host of traditional aspects of Muscogee Creek culture, that of the author’s. With beautiful and warm watercolor illustrations, Jingle Dancer is not just a story of this Indigenous culture, but also of the strength of sisterhood across generations.

Brother Eagle, Sister Sky: A Message from Chief Seattle by Chief Seattle (illustrated and adapted by Susan Jeffers)
Taking Chief Seattle’s speech at a discussion with the Commissioner of Indian Affairs for the Territory for the sale of lands, Jeffers illustrates these groundshaking words with images of Indigenous people and the land with incredible detail. Meanwhile, Chief Seattle’s words speak for themselves and remain just as powerful more than a hundred years after he originally spoke them. A meditation on whether the land belongs to people or if people belong to the land, the philosophy instilled in this book has multiple layers -- making it a great choice for talking about our responsibility to Earth for readers of all ages.

Sweetest Kulu by Celina Kalluk (illustrated by Alexandria Neonakis)
As Kulu drifts off to sleep, the narrator takes a tour of all the animals of the world who have given him “thoughts, feelings, and best wishes:” the arctic hare and how to love, narwhal and beluga and spontaneity, caribou and patience, and more. The positive influences of the world and its spirits lulls Kulu to his dreams in this beautiful picture book that introduces young readers to many likely unfamiliar animals. Author Celina Kalluk is Inuit and she instills her culture in Sweetest Kulu with soft, lilting language and cozy and comforting illustrations by Alexandria Neonakis.

When the Shadbush Blooms by Carla Messinger with Susan Katz (illustrated by David Kanietakeron Fadden)
A young girl and family explore the passing of the year through the lens of modern times and that of her ancestors. While much has remained the same over the years, as the text shows, much has also changed as depicted in the illustrations. Readers are exposed to the traditions of the Lenape people -- with their words at the top left of each spread and English on the opposite. See how the Lenape people fished, planted gardens, prepared their homes, and more in this picture book great for anytime of year.

Stolen Words by Melanie Florence (illustrated by Gabrielle Grimard)
Another reference to the oppression committed by school on Native peoples, Stolen Words introduces readers to a young girl and her grandfather. When the young girl asks for the Cree word for “grandfather,” he cannot recall. This short but powerful story impresses upon the reader another of the violences institutions imposed on Native populations while celebrating the power of words, stories and libraries. Accompanied by cozy, homey illustrations, this book can be appreciated on multiple levels by readers of various ages.

How Raven Got His Crooked Nose: An Alaskan Dena’ina Fable by Barbara J. Atwater and Ethan J. Atwater (illustrated by Mindy Dwyer)
This retelling of a traditional Dena’ina fable features a mix of prose and graphic-novel-like storytelling. When a girl rushes while collecting blueberries, her grandmother advises her to slow down and tells the story of the raven and how his own rush caused his crooked beak. Illustrations by Mindy Dwyer favor patterns as a theme, recalling art of the Dena’ina people. In the telling of the tale, small asides introduce readers to likely unfamiliar Dena’ina words with a pronunciation guide and English definition for each featured in the story. A fun story to share with a young child or one to study as a piece of traditional mythology, Raven has a use for all kinds of readers.

The First Mosquito by Caroll Simpson (illustrated by Caroll Simpson)
A new folktale, The First Mosquito is concluded with a note by the author encouraging readers to create their own fables based on traditional storytelling. This story, inspired by legends of the Indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest, incorporates Native spirits in a spooky tale that culminates in bravery and family strength. A brief education of the origin of stories and the beings featured in the story guides the reader at the end of the book while illustrations heavily inspired by the Native culture help to depict the art of the people.

Hiawatha and the Peacemaker by Robbie Robertson (illustrated by David Shannon)
Told alongside stunning and visceral illustrations by David Shannon, the story of Hiawatha and the Peacemaker makes its way into a picture book for older children and is accompanied by an audio component on disc featuring Robbie Robertson’s music. The story begins with Hiawatha’s anguish over losing his family and his desire for revenge on the “evil Chief, Tadodaho.” But when Hiawatha encounters a spirit, his heart is changed and he goes about the lands bringing the peacemaker spirit’s message to others.