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3 Must-Read Children’s Books By Indigenous Authors

Dec 23, 2016

All too often we think of “diverse” kids books as being a form of tourism (which turns into tokenism) – books that teach “us” about “them.” This is a grown up way of thinking about who and what we are, and one that does both kids and great children’s literature a disservice. Lucky for us, three new books, all from Indigenous women, make this sort of adult compartmentalization harder to do. They are books that centre and celebrate Indigeneity, but their themes of family, love, and finding oneself in the world make them books for all kids (and grown ups). Their beauty and boldness make them books easy to pick up and hard to put down for any and all readers.

My Heart Fills with Happiness (Monique Gray Smith, Illustrations by Julie Flett)

Recommended for ages 3 and up.

Some books can be judged by their covers and Monique Gray Smith’s My Heart Fills With Happiness is one of them. Drawing our attention to the deep joys that can be found in everyday life, this board book prompts adult and child readers to think about the little things that bring them happiness. My two-year-old loves this book, but I find myself reading it when she isn’t around, as a salve against the gloomier parts of my day. The illustrations by Julie Flett – one of the most gifted children’s book illustrators working today – balance bold colours with quiet lines and subtle gestures that capture moments in time, still lifes bursting with energy. Each illustration draws us into the beautiful minutae of every day life; how a mirror hangs on a wall, the way grass sways in the wind, a bright red tea towel pulled over the oven door handle.

My two-year-old loves this book, but I find myself reading it when she isn’t around, as a salve against the gloomier parts of my day.

The text offers nine sweet answers to the question the title poses: emphasizing the joys of the body in movement (dancing, singing, walking through the grass barefoot), the happiness we get from family and community (seeing the face of someone we love), and offering an added benefit of introducing the faces and experiences of Indigenous children who are largely missing from most mainstream children’s books (they drum, they cuddle up with siblings to smell bannock baking in the oven). The penultimate page prompts both adult and child readers to make their own list of things that fill their heart with happiness, making it a beautiful read at the end of the day as well as a beautiful way to start the day with a little bit of joy and gratitude.

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Sometimes I Feel Like a Fox (Danielle Daniel)

Recommended for ages 4 and up.

Despite good intentions, most kids books about feelings miss the mark. They tell a child what a feeling is by telling them when to feel it – fear is what you feel at night when you’re alone in your room, sadness is what you feel when your ice cream falls on the floor. When I first read Danielle Daniel’s Sometimes I Feel Like a Fox, I knew I had a book I would be reading and talking about with kids for years to come. The book offers a series of portraits of children as animals, each with their own set of feelings and characteristics grounded in the Anishinaabe tradition of totem animals (Daniel dedicates the book to her own son and to “the thousands of Métis and Aboriginal children who grew up never knowing their totem animals”). Just like the strong and awkward moose or the truthful and mysterious raven, children feel many things at once. Here, the subtlety of how complex feelings shape a child’s sense of who they are is given the respect and weight it deserves through simple, poetic prose and deceptively rich and complex illustrations. Maybe the greatest gift this book offers is the way it gives grown-ups and children a new way of thinking and talking about their feelings, moods, and the non-human animal world we all share. These are tools that come in handy in any home! 

Missing Nimâmâ (Melanie Florence, Illustrations by François Thisdale)

Recommended for ages 9 to 13.

This year’s winner of the TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award, Missing Nimâmâ is a story about love across three generations. It’s a story about a grandmother raising her granddaughter and it’s a story of the haunting, healing, and powerful presence of a missing mother (Nimâmâ is Cree for "my mother"). It provides an opening for parents and kids to talk about loss, tragedy, and resistance, in this case in the context of missing and murdered Aboriginal women. No explicit violence is depicted, and the grim numbers can only be found in a note to readers in the back, making this a picture book that, despite it’s subject matter, invites both child and adult readers to engage rather than scaring them off.

Missing Nimâmâ provides an opening for parents and kids to talk about loss, tragedy, and resistance.

The illustrations by award-winning illustrator François Thisdale place the story both in identifiable time and place, and in a sort of dream world – the space between the voices of daughter and mother where pain gives way to life, and despair pushes against hope, creating new possibilities. What is most remarkable about Missing Nimâmâ (other than the obvious dedication and strength it took author, illustrator and publisher to make a picture book about missing and murdered Indigenous women) is the matter of fact reckoning with life that is so characteristic of children at this age. It’s not that they, or we, don’t feel pain and loss, but their capacity to accept and move on is remarkable. This tone is perfectly captured in the closing lines of the book, where Aiyana is speaking from beyond to her daughter Kateri, who she calls kamâmakos, or butterfly: “It’s not the ending we dreamed of. But it will be happy enough, kamâmakos.”

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More than any generic clarion call for diversity in children’s books, these three titles – which cover the inexhaustible joy of everyday life, our own complicated natures, and an acceptance that life isn’t always as we want it to be, but can be beautiful enough for living – present the best argument out there for why your book shelf needs to be filled with contemporary Indigenous children’s authors, representing some of the strongest and most beautiful storytelling anywhere.

Article Author Cory Silverberg
Cory Silverberg

Read more from Cory here.

Raised by a children's librarian and a sex therapist, Cory Silverberg grew up to be a best-selling author and award-winning educator focusing on sexuality and gender. He received his master's of education from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and teaches on topics including sexuality, gender, disability, access and inclusion across North America.  His most recent book, Sex Is a Funny Word (with Fiona Smyth) was named a Stonewall Honor Book by the American Library Association and won the Norma Fleck Award for Canadian Children’s Non-Fiction from the Canadian Children’s Book Centre.

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