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Native American History and Culture: Award-Winning Books

This list recognizes selected children's books that have received the American Indian Youth Literature Award since 2006. The award identifies and honors the very best writing and illustrations by Native Americans and Indigenous peoples of North America. Books selected to receive the award present Indigenous North American peoples in the fullness of their humanity. The awards are chosen by jurors selected by the American Indian Library Association (AILA), an affiliate of the ALA.

All Around Us

By: Xelena Gonzalez
Illustrated by: Adriana Garcia
Age Level: 3-6
Reading Level: Beginning Reader

A girl and her grandfather contemplate circles, both physical and metaphorical, in this thought-provoking tale of family, community, and interconnection. Grandpa says circles are all around us. He points to the rainbow that rises high in the sky after a thundercloud has come. "Can you see? That's only half of the circle. That rest of it is down below, in the earth." They share and create family traditions in this exploration of the cycles of life and nature.

At the Mountain’s Base

By: Traci Sorell
Illustrated by: Weshoyot Alvitre
Genre: Historical Fiction
Age Level: 3-6
Reading Level: Beginning Reader

A family, separated by duty and distance, waits for a loved one to return home in this lyrical picture book celebrating the bonds of a Cherokee family and the bravery of history-making women pilots. At the mountain's base sits a cabin under an old hickory tree. And in that cabin lives a family — loving, weaving, cooking, and singing. The strength in their song sustains them as they wait for their loved one, a pilot, to return from war. The author's note pays homage to the true history of Native American U.S. service members like WWII pilot Ola Mildred "Millie" Rexroat.

Beaver Steals Fire: A Salish Coyote Story

By: Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes
Genre: Fiction, Fairy Tales and Folk Tales, Myths and Legends
Age Level: 3-6
Reading Level: Beginning Reader

A long time ago, fire belonged only to the animals in the land above, not to those on the earth below. Curlew, keeper of the sky world, guarded fire and kept it from the earth. Coyote, however, devised a clever plan to steal fire, aided by Grizzly Bear, Wren, Snake, Frog, Eagle, and Beaver. Beaver Steals Fire is an ancient and powerful tale springing from the hearts and experiences of the Salish people of Montana.

Birdsong

By: Julie Flett
Genre: Fiction
Age Level: 6-9
Reading Level: Independent Reader

When a young girl moves from the country to a small town, she feels lonely and out of place. But soon she meets an elderly woman next door, who shares her love of arts and crafts. Can the girl navigate the changing seasons and failing health of her new friend? Cree-Métis words (defined in a small glossary) add an intimate layer of identity to the child’s narration.

Black Bear Red Fox (Colours in Cree)

By: Julie Flett
Genre: Nonfiction
Age Level: 3-6
Reading Level: Beginning Reader

Provides the English and Cree words for colors, along with the pronunciation.

Bowwow Powwow

By: Brenda J. Child, Gordon Jourdain
Illustrated by: Jonathan Thunder
Genre: Fiction
Age Level: 3-6
Reading Level: Beginning Reader

When Uncle and Windy Girl and Itchy Boy attend a powwow, Windy watches the dancers in their jingle dresses and listens to the singers. She eats tasty food and joins family and friends around the campfire. Later, Windy falls asleep under the stars. Now Uncle's stories inspire other visions in her head: a bowwow powwow, where all the dancers are dogs. This playful story is accompanied by a companion retelling in Ojibwe.

Caribou Song

By: Tomson Highway
Illustrated by: John Rombough
Genre: Fiction
Age Level: 6-9
Reading Level: Independent Reader

Bilingual in English and Cree, this story of the far north follows a family of four that has a spiritual connection to the caribou of the land. One brother, Joe, plays the accordion (a kitoochigan) and sings while the other, Cody, dances. On a magical day, all of nature aligns and ten thousand caribou come when the boys call. Though the stampede is strong, Cody and Joe emerge from the experience unharmed.

Crossing Bok Chitto: A Choctaw Tale of Friendship & Freedom

By: Tim Tingle
Illustrated by: Jeanne Rorex Bridges
Genre: Historical Fiction
Age Level: 6-9
Reading Level: Independent Reader

Dramatic, quiet, and warming, this is a story of friendship across cultures in 1800s Mississippi. While searching for blackberries, Martha Tom, a young Choctaw, breaks her village's rules against crossing the Bok Chitto. She meets and becomes friends with the slaves on the plantation on the other side of the river and later helps a family escape across it to freedom when they hear that the mother is to be sold. Tingle is a performing storyteller, and his text has the rhythm and grace of that oral tradition. 

Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story

By: Kevin Maillard
Illustrated by: Juana Martinez-Neal
Genre: Nonfiction
Age Level: 3-6
Reading Level: Beginning Reader

What is fry bread? It’s food, shape, sound, art, history, and more — so much more. It is an American Indian tradition shared by a member of the Mekusukey Seminoles. A varied group of children and elders are depicted contributing to the recipe as the text describes its complex role in American history. Additional information is appended to create a book that can be used in both simple and complex ways.

I Can Make This Promise

By: Christine Day
Genre: Fiction
Age Level: 9-12
Reading Level: Independent Reader

The story of a girl who uncovers her family’s secrets — and finds her own Native American identity. The author, a member of the Upper Skagit tribe, handles issues surrounding identity, loss of culture, adoption, and family separation with insight. The novel looks at historical truths about how Native Americans have been treated throughout U.S. history.

In the Footsteps of Crazy Horse

By: Joseph Marshall III
Illustrated by: Jim Yellowhawk
Genre: Fiction
Age Level: 9-12
Reading Level: Independent Reader

Seamlessly integrating Lakota history and oral tradition, the author (of the Brulé Lakota tribe) takes readers along for a road trip with Jimmy and his maternal grandfather as they embark on a "vision journey," visiting famous landmarks, monuments, and landscapes integral to the life of the great warrior and leader Crazy Horse. Jimmy, a young Lakota boy, struggles with fitting in on his reservation because he does not look like the other Lakota boys; he has light hair, blue eyes, and his father is of Scottish decent. Grandpa Nyles introduces Jimmy to another Lakota who had fair hair and light skin — the famous Crazy Horse. Over the course of their trip, Grandpa Nyles recounts history and stories about the life of the Lakota hero and the events that shaped him into a powerful leader, including famous battles and standoffs against the white settlers.

Nibi Emosaawdang / The Water Walker

By: Joanne Robertson
Genre: Nonfiction
Age Level: 6-9
Reading Level: Independent Reader

Based on a true story, The Water Walker, shares the story of Josephine Mandamin, a woman who was inspired by a prophecy to protect water. The book tracks her activism around water protection and the group of Water Walkers that she formed who join her on her many walks across North America. This is a dual-language edition in English and Anishinaabemowin.

Putuguq and Kublu and the Qalupalik

By: Roselynn Akulukjuk, Danny Christopher
Illustrated by: Astrid Arijanto
Genre: Fiction, Myths and Legends
Age Level: 6-9
Reading Level: Independent Reader

Rich in folklore and local culture, this graphic novel aimed at emergent readers offers a window into the world of Arctic First Nations families and legends. The two protagonists have a typical sibling dynamic as younger brother Putuguq tags along and annoys his older sister Kublu. On the way to meet a friend near the ocean, the duo run into their grandfather. He warns them to steer clear of the shoreline, lest they become victims of the Qalupalik, a nightmarish, mermaidlike creature who captures those who wander too close to the water. A map orienting readers to Putuguq and Kublu's snow-covered village showcases an array of homes on stilts, many with snowmobiles (and sled dogs) outside.

Saltypie: A Choctaw Journey from Darkness into Light

By: Tim Tingle
Illustrated by: Karen Clarkson
Genre: Nonfiction, Biography
Age Level: 6-9
Reading Level: Independent Reader

In this powerful family saga, author Tim Tingle tells the story of his family’s move from Oklahoma Choctaw country to Pasadena, TX. Spanning 50 years, the book describes the problems encountered by his Choctaw grandmother — from her orphan days at an Indian boarding school to hardships encountered in her new home on the Gulf Coast.

Sitting Bull: Lakota Warrior and Defender of His People

By: S. D. Nelson
Genre: Nonfiction, Biography
Age Level: 9-12
Reading Level: Independent Reader

From Sitting Bull’s childhood — killing his first buffalo at age ten — to being named war chief, to leading his people against the U.S. Army, and to his surrender, this book brings the story of the great chief to light. Sitting Bull was instrumental in the war against the invasive wasichus (White Man) and was at the forefront of the combat, including the Battles of Killdeer Mountain and the Little Bighorn. He and Crazy Horse were the last Lakota/Sioux to surrender their people to the U.S. government and resort to living on a reservation.

Tales of the Mighty Code Talkers

By: Arigon Starr
Illustrated by: Roy Boney, Jr.
Genre: Historical Fiction
Age Level: 9-12
Reading Level: Independent Reader

Based on the true stories of the Native American Code Talkers this graphic novel features nine original stories by Native American artists and writers documenting the heroic tales of Code Talkers from World War I through Korea. The graphic novel also features a history of the Code Talkers and a lesson plan for teachers who wish to use the book to teach students about the struggle and accomplishments of these Native American heroes.

The Birchbark House

By: Louise Erdrich
Genre: Fiction, Historical Fiction
Age Level: 9-12
Reading Level: Independent Reader

Opening in the summer of 1847, this story follows an Ojibwe family through four seasons; it focuses on young Omakayas, who turns "eight winters old" during the course of the novel. In nearly step-by-step details, the story describes how they build a summer home out of birchbark, gather with extended family to harvest rice in the autumn, treat an attack of smallpox during the winter, and make maple syrup in the spring to stock their own larder and to sell to others.

The Christmas Coat: Memories of My Sioux Childhood

By: Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve
Illustrated by: Ellen Beier
Genre: Biography
Age Level: 6-9
Reading Level: Independent Reader

Virginia's coat is too small and hardly protects her from the frigid South Dakata winter. As Christmas approaches, all the children on the Sioux reservation look forward to receiving boxes full of clothing sent by congregations in the East. Virginia spots a beautiful gray fur coat but holds back tears as it is claimed by one of her classmates. Later, Virginia can't believe what Mama brings home. Based on an event from the author's childhood, this picture book captures the giving spirit of Christmas.

The Forever Sky

By: Thomas Peacock
Illustrated by: Annette S. Lee
Genre: Fiction
Age Level: 3-6
Reading Level: Beginning Reader

One night, a beautiful show of lights fills the sky. Niigaanii explains to his younger brother, Bineshiinh that the northern lights are the spirits of the relatives who have passed on, including their beloved grandmother Nooko. The boys imagine different relatives dancing, lighting up the sky with their graceful movements. There are so many stars and so many stories that the boys spend night after night making sense of patterns and wisdom in "the forever sky."

The Grizzly Mother

By: Hetxw'ms Gyetxw (Brett D. Huson)
Illustrated by: Natasha Donovan
Genre: Nonfiction
Age Level: 9-12
Reading Level: Independent Reader

To the Gitxsan people of northwestern British Columbia, the grizzly is an integral part of the natural landscape. They share the land and forests the Skeena River runs through, as well as the sockeye salmon within it. The Grizzly Mother explores how an ecosystem's animals, people, and seasons are all intertwined.

We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga

By: Traci Sorell
Illustrated by: Frané Lessac
Genre: Nonfiction
Age Level: 3-6
Reading Level: Beginning Reader

Join the Cherokee people as they celebrate each season of the year and special occasions, as well as the daily activities for which gratitude is expressed. Bold hues and flat forms distinguish the naïve illustrations. Cherokee words, based on Sequoyah’s syllabary (written symbols for syllables), are sprinkled throughout. Additional information concludes this handsome and unique glimpse of contemporary Native life written by a Cherokee poet.

We Are Water Protectors

By: Carole Lindstrom
Illustrated by: Michaela Goade
Genre: Myths and Legends
Age Level: 6-9
Reading Level: Independent Reader

The prophecy has come true: the black snake has come to terrorize the community. It hurts the source of life, water. This call to action is presented by in word and image by an author and illustrator, Ojibwe and Tlingit/Haida respectively, based on the Dakota Pipeline access protest in Standing Rock reservation. Lush, flowing illustrations and a narration by a young Native girl make a compelling case for protection, encouraging readers to sign a water protector pledge.

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