Indigenous and Native American Heritage Month reminds us of the importance of reading Native American children’s books to learn and celebrate the culture, contributions, history, and traditions of American Indians and Indigenous groups from the United States and Canada.
The National American Indian Heritage Month in November began in 1990. Only recently has the world of children’s literature caught up with the importance of publishing and reading Native voices and stories.
In fact, Harper Collins recently launched the Heartdrum Imprint! Heartdrum publishes children’s books that “emphasize the present and future of Indian Country and the strength of young Indigenous heroes.“
Use this list to share amazing, inclusive middle grade books and a few YA Native American books with your kids and students; books that represent indigenous voices and indigenous heroic main characters.
If you’re looking for picture books with Native American characters, go here.
Visit Pragmatic Mom for more resources to celebrate Native American Heritage Month.
Native American Books for Kids
Middle Grade (Ages 8 – 12)
The Brave by James Bird
Run out to get this stunningly beautiful book with a main character you’ll love. It’s filled with metaphorical, meaningful, and symbolic writing and you will feel ALL the feelings. When Collin, a boy who counts every letter spoken to him and says the number out loud, gets kicked out of yet another school, his neglectful father sends Collin to live with his mom. Collin has never met his mother but he’s curious to meet her and live on the Ojibwe reservation. Living with her is a totally different experience than his previous home — because with his mother, he’s welcomed and not judged. He befriends a sick neighbor girl who teaches Collin how to be brave. Which he needs. And so does she, because she’s going to be a butterfly soon…
Ancestor Approved: Intertribal Stories for Kids edited by Cynthia Leitch Smith
These exceptionally written, interconnected short stories are about kids and their experiences with the powwow, cultural aspects of the Native communities, growing up, and belonging. They’re wonderfully written and wholly engaging. At first, each story seems distinct, but the stories intersect with graceful wonder. It’s a beautiful collection of stories that amplifies Native voices and gives non-Native folks a view of the modern-day lives of Indigenous kids and their families.
Rez Dogs by Joseph Bruchac
Written in verse, we follow Malin sent away to live with her grandparents on the Wabanaki reservation during the pandemic. A rez dog named Malsum adopts her, becoming her ally and friend, which helps her adjust to living without her parents. When a government worker arrives to check on her, her new best friend Malsum scares her off. That’s when her grandparents teach Malin about the history of Native kids who were taken away by the government. Her grandparents share many other stories of their beliefs and history which helps Malin connect to her heritage and feel her less sad about missing her parents.
Barren Grounds: The Misewa Saga by David A. Robertson
Foster kids with Indigenous heritage, Morgan and Eli, discover a portal in the attic leading to a magical world of Cree language and mythology. It’s a world with talking animals who walk on two legs who need their help. Ochek, the Fischer, asks the kids to end the starving community’s forever winter by finding the human man who stole all the birds and, with them, summer. Their dangerous quest triggers Morgan’s memories of her mother and a new perspective about who she is. The children travel far with their new friends and experience danger and trials in order to save this beautiful world.
Race to the Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse
The compelling, well-written middle grade book jumps into action immediately when Nizhoni, from the Diné (Navajo) people, sees a monster (disguised as a human) at her basketball game. Making matters worse, it’s her dad’s new boss who kidnaps her dad and wants her little brother, too. She escapes with her brother and best friend to ask the Spider Woman for help, learning that she and her brothers are the descendants of the Hero Twins. Her journey challenges her with heroic trials in order to meet the Sun who will give her weapons to fight the monsters and culminating in a fierce battle between the good guys and the monsters. I LOVED this story — it’s a fast-paced hero’s journey with a rich, diverse mythology.
I Can Make This Promise by Christine Day
This book skillfully weaves an important, heartfelt story about growing up, family, and finding your identity in the context of adoption, historical maltreatment of Native Americans, and the mystery of your own heritage. Edie’s mom is an adopted Native American who can’t trace her heritage. When Edie unexpectedly finds a box of photos and letters from the woman she suspects was her mom’s birth mother, it prompts a journey to discover the truth of her heritage. And the truth is not what she expects but it opens her eyes (and ours) to the unjust but common practices that happened throughout U.S. history of taking Native kids away from their birth parents; parents whose only crime was being Native.
Indian No More by Charlene Willing McManis and Traci Sorell
Indian No More is an emotional, important story about when the U.S. government arbitrarily made certain Native American tribes no longer tribes without reservations or legal rights. It also shows the historical landscape of prejudice and stereotypes toward people of color. But it also shows a close-knit, loving family based on the author’s own life, a family who values each other and their survival. This middle grade book is a must-read and must-own for all schools and libraries and would make an excellent book club selection for any month or Indigenous / Native American Heritage Month.
Elatsol by Darcie Little Badger
When teenager Ellie’s ghost dog starts freaking out, she knows that someone in her family has died. And it’s true. Her cousin was murdered — she knows this because his ghost tells her in a dream, that it wasn’t an accident, and he tells her who did it. Ellie’s gifting is ghost awakenings, and with the help of her family, her friend Jay and her ancestor, Elatsoe, for whom she was named, Ellie uses her strengths to track the killer and solve the mystery. The story weaves together Apache culture and legends with ghosts, vampires, and modern technology into a suspenseful, engaging mystery.
Peacemaker by Joseph Bruchac
Okwaho’s best friend is kidnapped by a neighboring enemy tribe– and his small peaceful village fears that they’ll never get away from the violence of continuous war within The Five Nations of the Iroquois as they’d hoped by leaving their old village. Then one day, a man arrives with stories of another man called the Peacemaker sent by the Creator to bring peace to the warring nations. The only community he hasn’t convinced yet is Onondaga led by Ataharho, Okwaho’s old community. Strong female leadership with a messiah theme shows a fictionalized and interesting history of how the Iroquois formed the Haudenosaunee, Great League of Peace.
No Place Like Home by James Bird
I love the character development, the vivid details, and the incredibly strong narrative voice in this story about homelessness, the challenges of getting out of poverty, an Ojibwe perspective and culture about the systemic oppression of Native people, growing up, family, and the love of a dog. Based on James’ childhood, Opin is a sweet, hopeful boy who lives with his mom and his older brother in their car, traveling from city to city. He adores his mother, but he’s scared of his angry, violent older brother, who comes and goes as he pleases. When Opin finds a hurt dog, the love of a dog fills a void for Opin, until his brother takes it away. Despite the challenges of their life, there is beauty and joy threaded through this compelling story that will stay with you long after you finish the last page. *Sensitive readers, there are a few swear words.
The Sea in Winter by Christine Day
Maisie feels sadness, grief, and anger at not being able to dance due to a knee injury. Dance was her life so she pretends her knee feels okay and is healing, even though it still hurts. She takes a hiking trip with her parents and little brother where she reinjures herself with a bad fall. Now she really won’t be able to return to dance. Her mom and therapist help Maisie work through the feelings and envision a different future for herself. With themes of grief, identity, and Native American heritage, this story resonates with anyone who has felt the pain of shattered dreams.
In the Footsteps of Crazy Horse by Joseph Marshall III, illustrated by James Mark Yellowhawk
Jimmy McClean’s grandfather takes him on a road trip where he shares the stories of Crazy Horse’s life and battles up to his death. The duo travel from the Dakotas (home of the Lakota) to Wyoming and other places significant to Crazy Horse. The result teaches readers a sobering true history and is one that will stay with you long after you’re done reading this book.
The Star that Always Stays by Anna Rose Johnson
This is a rich coming-of-age historical fiction story set around the first World War about an introspective girl dealing with racism, prejudice, and knowing herself. Norvia struggles with other people’s disdain for her family because of her divorced mother, and she’s hiding that she’s half Ojibwe. Her Uncle Virgil helps Norvia see that changes always happen and she can decide how to respond to those changes. The characters hold Christian beliefs and share Bible verses to encourage each other. Her blended, loving family helps Norvia embrace her full self and live honestly with courage as a Native girl with big dreams.
She Holds Up the Stars by Sandra Laronde
12-year-old Misko is visiting her grandmother on the reservation for the summer. She has lived in the city with her aunt after her mom left. She dreams of a horse named Mishtadim, then sees a horse being violently whipped by a neighboring white man. She meets the man’s son and he justifies his dad’s brutality but Misko lectures him about the horrors of breaking people and animals and things. She names the horse Mishtadim and convinces the boy named Thomas, who is just as maltreated as the horse, to let her help train him with kindness instead of violence. She grows into a new love for the land and Thomas grows into a new perspective of how he and the horse should be treated.
Sisters of the Neversea by Cynthia L. Smith
In this reimagined Peter Pan story, a blended family’s parents aren’t getting along and Lily and Wendy feel the stress. A manipulative Peter Pan takes advantage of their troubles by offering a fantasy land with no problems — which at first seems enticing but soon seems scary and they realize that they’re trapped on the Island. I listen to the audiobook which didn’t have a compelling narrator so I would recommend reading the print book. There is a lot of the story that addresses the treatment of Indigenous people by Peter and by people in Lily’s life– as well as themes of equity and family.
Living Ghosts and Mischievous Monsters by Dan SaSuWeh Jones, illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre
Kids will love these creepy short stories from Native American communities about ghosts, spirits, witches, supernatural, and monsters. The short story format makes it easy to dive into any story in any order or just read a few at a time. (I usually get very scared but these only scared me a little bit.)
Healer of the Water Monster by Brian Young
Nathan is visiting his grandma on the Navajo reservation. They’re both dealing with the results of Uncle Jet’s alcoholism — his drunk driving, lying, and anger. Grandma believes they can use the traditional way to heal Jet’s alcoholism but Jet is resistant. Meanwhile, Nathan befriends the Water Monster, a Diné Holy Being, who needs his help and Nathan must also lie to his grandma in order to take a journey to save the Water Monster. I have mixed feelings about this story and will say that it’s not my favorite.
YA Native American Books Month (ages 13+)
Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley
MESMERIZING! This *mature YA novel is brilliantly crafted with incredible characters, important themes and topics like Ojibwe / Anishinaabbe culture, growing into your strength, and a complicated mystery involving murder and drugs. 18-year old Daunis Fountaine witnesses the murder of her best friend and as a result, agrees to help the FBI to solve the larger problem which is finding the source of the drugs taken by her friend’s boyfriend and eventual murderer. Daunis’ life is complicated by more than her search for the truth– she’s not going to college as she planned, she didn’t grow up in the reservation nor is she a member due to her parentage, the two sides of her family don’t get along, and she’s exploring a new relationship that turns out to be a lie. *(rape, murder, drugs, language) I listened to the audiobook which I loved because of the exceptional narrator, Isabella Star LaBlanc!
Undefeated: Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team by Steve Sheinkin
You don’t have to be a football fan to be mesmerized by this incredible underdog biography of grit with the history of football and racism as a backdrop. Jim Thorpe was clearly one of the greatest athletes in the world of all time but his life exemplified the racism and abuse toward American Indians starting with his time in the abusive Carlisle Indian white-run boarding school where he started playing football. He would go on to play baseball and go to the Olympics. But it was a complicated, challenging life that you MUST read to understand.
The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline
What a page-turner! In a post-apocalyptic world, indigenous peoples are being hunted for their bone marrow because it gives whoever steals it– the ability to dream, which these other peoples have lost. Frenchie’s live is all about survival and avoidance of the hunters. But when his group is attacked, he isn’t even sure he can even trust other indigenous people. Eventually, he finds a small group of people that help him survive and maybe even thrive –only if they can stay one step ahead of the government’s Recruiters and avoid the traitors among the People…It’s a harrowing quest for survival with echoes of genocide that is, unfortunately, all too familiar.