I’m embarrassed to say that I haven’t read a ton of Native American middle-grade or YA literature. I think part of the reason is that they’re just not as widely publicized and are still marginalized in publishing. November is Native American Heritage Month, or as it is usually called, American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month. I made it a point to learn a bit more about Native American literature, and to read more of it, not just during this month, but in general.
On this list, I’ve tried to include OwnVoices selections from Native American authors or authors of Native American descent. You will find middle-grade and young adult books. I have to credit the wonderful Cynthia Leitich Smith for the wonderful resources on her website, which you can visit for even more picks by Native American writers. Please let me know if an author on this list is not Native American — it’s possible that I could’ve missed such a detail.
Click on the graphics to head over to the book’s Amazon page.
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Best Native American Middle-Grade Books
Apple in the Middle
Apple Starkington turned her back on her Native American heritage the moment she was called a racial slur for someone of white and Indian descent, not that she really even knew how to be an Indian in the first place. Too bad the white world doesn t accept her either. And so begins her quirky habits to gain acceptance.
Apple’s name, chosen by her Indian mother on her deathbed, has a double meaning: treasured apple of my eye, but also the negative connotation a person who is red, or Indian, on the outside, but white on the inside.
After her wealthy father gives her the boot one summer, Apple reluctantly agrees to visit her Native American relatives on the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation in northern North Dakota for the first time. Apple learns to deal with the culture shock of Indian customs and the Native Michif language, while she tries to find a connection to her dead mother. She also has to deal with a vengeful Indian man who loved her mother in high school but now hates Apple because her mom married a white man.
Bouncing in the middle of two cultures, Apple meets her Indian relatives, shatters Indian stereotypes, and learns what it means to find her place in a world divided by color.
The Sea in Winter (Jan. 2021)
It’s been a hard year for Maisie Cannon, ever since she hurt her leg and could not keep up with her ballet training and auditions.
Her blended family is loving and supportive, but Maisie knows that they just can’t understand how hopeless she feels. With everything she’s dealing with, Maisie is not excited for their family midwinter road trip along the coast, near the Makah community where her mother grew up.
But soon, Maisie’s anxieties and dark moods start to hurt as much as the pain in her knee. How can she keep pretending to be strong when on the inside she feels as roiling and cold as the ocean?
Sisters of the Neversea (June 2021)
Lily and Wendy have been best friends since they became stepsisters. But with their feuding parents planning to spend the summer apart, what will become of their family—and their friendship?
Little do they know that a mysterious boy has been watching them from the oak tree outside their window. A boy who intends to take them away from home for good, to an island of wild animals, Merfolk, Fairies, and kidnapped children, to a sea of merfolk, pirates, and a giant crocodile.
A boy who calls himself Peter Pan.
Ancestor Approved: Intertribal Stories for Kids (Feb. 2021)
Native families from Nations across the continent gather at the Dance for Mother Earth Powwow in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
In a high school gym full of color and song, people dance, sell beadwork and books, and celebrate friendship and heritage. Young protagonists will meet relatives from faraway, mysterious strangers, and sometimes one another (plus one scrappy rez dog).
In the Footsteps of Crazy Horse
Through stories of Lakota leader Crazy Horse, a boy learns about his heritage and himself in this American Indian Youth Literature Award-winning novel from acclaimed author Joseph Marshall III
Jimmy McClean is a Lakota boy, though you wouldn’t guess it by his name. His mother is Lakota, and his father is half white and half Lakota. Over summer break, Jimmy embarks on a journey with his grandfather, Nyles High Eagle. While on the road, his grandfather tells him the story of Crazy Horse, one of the most important figures in Lakota, and American, history.
Expertly intertwining fiction and nonfiction, celebrated Brulé Lakota author Joseph Marshall III chronicles the many heroic deeds of Crazy Horse, especially his taking up arms against the U.S. government. He fiercely fought against encroachments on the territories and way of life of the Lakota people, including leading a war party to victory at the Battle of the Greasy Grass (the Battle of the Little Bighorn) and playing a major and dangerous role as decoy at the Battle of the Hundred in the Hands (the Fetterman Battle). With Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse was the last of the Lakota to surrender his people to the U.S. Army. Through his grandfather’s tales about the famous warrior, Jimmy learns about his Lakota heritage and, ultimately, himself.
Drawing references and inspiration from the oral stories of the Lakota tradition, Marshall gives readers an insider’s perspective on the life of Tasunke Witko, better known as Crazy Horse.
I Can Make This Promise
All her life, Edie has known that her mom was adopted by a white couple. So, no matter how curious she might be about her Native American heritage, Edie is sure her family doesn’t have any answers.
Until the day when she and her friends discover a box hidden in the attic—a box full of letters signed “Love, Edith,” and photos of a woman who looks just like her.
Suddenly, Edie has a flurry of new questions about this woman who shares her name. Could she belong to the Native family that Edie never knew about? But if her mom and dad have kept this secret from her all her life, how can she trust them to tell her the truth now?
What do Indian shoes look like, anyway? Like beautiful beaded moccasins…or hightops with bright orange shoelaces?
Ray Halfmoon prefers hightops, but he gladly trades them for a nice pair of moccasins for his Grampa. After all, it’s Grampa Halfmoon who’s always there to help Ray get in and out of scrapes — like the time they are forced to get creative after a homemade haircut makes Ray’s head look like a lawn-mowing accident.
This collection of interrelated stories is heartwarming and laugh-out-loud funny. Cynthia Leitich Smith writes with wit and candor about what it’s like to grow up as a Seminole-Cherokee boy who is just as happy pounding the pavement in windy Chicago as rowing on a take in rural Oklahoma.
Indian No More
Regina Petit’s family has always been Umpqua, and living on the Grand Ronde Tribe’s reservation is all ten-year-old Regina has ever known. Her biggest worry is that Sasquatch may actually exist out in the forest. But when the federal government enacts a law that says Regina’s tribe no longer exists, Regina becomes “Indian no more” overnight–even though she lives with her tribe and practices tribal customs, and even though her ancestors were Indian for countless generations.
Now that they’ve been forced from their homeland, Regina’s father signs the family up for the federal Indian Relocation Program and moves them to Los Angeles. Regina finds a whole new world in her neighborhood on 58th Place. She’s never met kids of other races, and they’ve never met a real Indian. For the first time in her life, Regina comes face to face with the viciousness of racism, personally and toward her new friends.
Meanwhile, her father believes that if he works hard, their family will be treated just like white Americans. But it’s not that easy. It’s 1957 during the Civil Rights era, and the family struggles without their tribal community and land. At least Regina has her grandmother, Chich, and her stories. At least they are all together.
In this moving middle-grade novel drawing upon Umpqua author Charlene Willing McManis’s own tribal history, Regina must find out: Who is Regina Petit? Is she Indian, American, or both? And will she and her family ever be okay?
Dear Miss Karana
While reading Island of the Blue Dolphins at school and learning about the real woman stranded on San Nicolás Island, ten-year-old Tíshmal begins writing emails to “Miss Karana” in hopes of talking to her spirit. When she arrived on the mainland of Southern California, Miss Karana spoke a language that no one could understand even back then, and all that remains is a recording of the song she sang when she was found on the island. Tíshmal realizes that some of the words sound very similar to Chamtéela (Luiseño), the language spoken on her reservation. As she writes to Miss Karana, Tíshmal becomes more and more resolved to understand the lone woman’s song. The only person able to help her is a grouchy great uncle, Wéh Powéeya (“two tongues”), the last living person fluent in the language of their ancestors from the belly button of the ocean: the islands including San Nicolás. Together, Tíshmal and Wéh Powéeya must discover what the lone woman said long ago in order to help her spirit finish the journey West.
First written in Chamtéela and developed in accordance with fourth grade Common Core State Standards, Dear Miss Karana tells a compelling story of family, determination, and cultural perseverance.
Note: This list formerly included Sharon’s Creech’s Walk Two Moons, which has now been removed since the author is non Native.
Best Native American Young Adult Books
As a biracial, unenrolled tribal member and the product of a scandal, eighteen-year-old Daunis Fontaine has never quite fit in, both in her hometown and on the nearby Ojibwe reservation. Daunis dreams of studying medicine, but when her family is struck by tragedy, she puts her future on hold to care for her fragile mother.
The only bright spot is meeting Jamie, the charming new recruit on her brother Levi’s hockey team. Yet even as Daunis falls for Jamie, certain details don’t add up and she senses the dashing hockey star is hiding something. Everything comes to light when Daunis witnesses a shocking murder, thrusting her into the heart of a criminal investigation.
Reluctantly, Daunis agrees to go undercover, but secretly pursues her own investigation, tracking down the criminals with her knowledge of chemistry and Ojibwe traditional medicine. But the deceptions―and deaths―keep piling up and soon the threat strikes too close to home.
Now, Daunis must learn what it means to be a strong Anishinaabe kwe (Ojibwe woman) and how far she’ll go to protect her community, even if it tears apart the only world she’s ever known.
When Louise Wolfe’s first real boyfriend mocks and disrespects Native people in front of her, she breaks things off and dumps him over e-mail. It’s her senior year, anyway, and she’d rather spend her time with her family and friends and working on the school newspaper. The editors pair her up with Joey Kairouz, the ambitious new photojournalist, and in no time the paper’s staff find themselves with a major story to cover: the school musical director’s inclusive approach to casting The Wizard of Oz has been provoking backlash in their mostly white, middle-class Kansas town.
From the newly formed Parents Against Revisionist Theater to anonymous threats, long-held prejudices are being laid bare and hostilities are spreading against teachers, parents, and students — especially the cast members at the center of the controversy, including Lou’s little brother, who’s playing the Tin Man. As tensions mount at school, so does a romance between Lou and Joey — but as she’s learned, “dating while Native” can be difficult. In trying to protect her own heart, will Lou break Joey’s?
Give Me Some Truth
Carson Mastick is entering his senior year of high school and desperate to make his mark, on the reservation and off. A rock band — and winning Battle of the Bands — is his best shot. But things keep getting in the way. Small matters like the lack of an actual band, or his brother getting shot by the racist owner of a local restaurant.
Maggi Bokoni has just moved back to the reservation with her family. She’s dying to stop making the same traditional artwork her family sells to tourists (conceptual stuff is cooler), stop feeling out of place in her new (old) home, and stop being treated like a child. She might like to fall in love for the first time too.
Carson and Maggi — along with their friend Lewis — will navigate loud protests, even louder music, and first love in this stirring novel about coming together in a world defined by difference.
Rain Is Not My Indian Name
It’s been six months since Cassidy Rain Berghoff’s best friend, Galen, died, and up until now she has succeeded in shutting herself off from the world. But when controversy arises around Aunt Georgia’s Indian Camp in their mostly white midwestern community, Rain decides to face the outside world again, with a new job photographing the campers for her town’s newspaper.
Soon, Rain has to decide how involved she wants to become in Indian Camp. Does she want to keep a professional distance from her fellow Native teens? And, though she is still grieving, will she be able to embrace new friends and new beginnings?
Surviving the City (Graphic Novel)
Tasha Spillet’s graphic-novel debut tells a story of kinship, resilience, cultural resurgence, and the anguish of a missing loved one. Miikwan and Dez are best friends. Miikwan is Anishinaabe; Dez is Inninew. Together, the teens navigate the challenges of growing up Indigenous in an urban landscape―they’re so close, they even completed their Berry Fast together. However, when Dez’s grandmother becomes too sick, Dez is told she can’t stay with her anymore. With the threat of a group home looming, Dez can’t bring herself to go home and disappears. Miikwan is devastated, and the wound of her missing mother resurfaces. Will Dez’s community find her before it’s too late? Will Miikwan be able to cope if they don’t?
It’s 1932, and twelve-year-old Cal Black and his Pop have been riding the rails for years after losing their farm in the Great Depression. Cal likes being a “knight of the road” with Pop, even if they’re broke. But then Pop has to go to Washington, DC–some of his fellow veterans are marching for their government checks, and Pop wants to make sure he gets his due–and Cal can’t go with him. So Pop tells Cal something he never knew before: Pop is actually a Creek Indian, which means Cal is too. And Pop has decided to send Cal to a government boarding school for Native Americans in Oklahoma called the Challagi School.
At school, the other Creek boys quickly take Cal under their wings. Even in the harsh, miserable conditions of the Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school, he begins to learn about his people’s history and heritage. He learns their language and customs. And most of all, he learns how to find strength in a group of friends who have nothing beyond each other
There they are: 16 of the best Native American middle-grade books, with a sprinkling of YA titles. I hope these make for a great starting point. I’ve read just one book on this list, but I’m working to remedy this ASAP!
Have you read any of these Native American middle-grade books or YA titles? Which ones did you love? If you haven’t yet, where would you like to begin?
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