by Margaret Kingsbury
In honor of Canadian History Week (Nov. 18-24) and Native American Heritage Month (November), we’ve gathered these eleven children’s books by Indigenous creatures to celebrate the rich cultures of Indigneous persons from Canada. While some of these children’s books tell stories from the past, others place Indigenous peoples in contemporary times. It’s just as important for children to learn about the past as it is to see themselves–or to see diverse peoples–in their present.
While I found many many authors I wanted to include on this list, unfortunately, Indigenous representation is still far too low in publishing. According to the most recent statistics by the CCBC, only 1% of books published in 2018 contained Indigenous characters. This is outrageous. Thankfully, several children’s book publishers are trying to change these statistics. Inhabit Media is the first Inuit-owned, independent publishing company, and they publish gorgeous children’s books from the Canadian arctic region by Indigenous creators. Several of their books are on this list. While Orca Books doesn’t specifically focus on publishing Indigenous authors, they “strive to produce books that illuminate the experiences of people of all ethnicities, people with disabilities and people who identify as LGBTQ.” This means that many of their books are by Indigenous authors, and some appear on this list. If you’re looking to support Indigenous creators in children’s publishing, these are great places to find books.
11 Children’s Books by Indigenous Creators
My Heart Fills with Happiness by Monique Gray Smith, Illustrated by Julie Flett
Monique Gray Smith is of Cree, Lakota, and Scottish descent, and Julie Flett is Cree-Metis. In this collaboration, a little girl reflects on everything that makes her happy, from the sun on her cheeks to the smell of bannock baking in the oven. It’s a poetic and simple board book with gorgeous illustrations and makes a perfect baby shower gift. I read it to my daughter often. Monique Gray Smith has a few children’s books, ranging from board books like this one to middle-grade novels.
Good Morning World and Good Night World by Paul Windsor
These two board books are the perfect way to open and close the day with babies and toddlers. My one-year-old daughter often says “Good morning world!” when I get her up, and it’s the best thing. In the books, animals say “Good morning” or “Good Night” to other animals and parts of their environment. Paul Windsor is a member of the Haisla and Heiltsuk Nations, and the same bright, woodcut-style images from these books are featured as the Haisla Nation’s logo. He’s written many board books featuring animals of the Native Northwest.
May We Have Enough to Share by Richard Van Camp
Richard Van Camp is a prolific children’s book author from the Dogrib (Tlicho) Nation. In his most recent board book, May We Have Enough to Share, he celebrates family by thanking all the things that help sustain them: “May we have enough to lighten each other’s sorrows.” “May we have hugs to warm each other’s hearts.” It reads like a prayer book for young readers. It’s beautifully illustrated by photographs from tea & bannock, a collective blog by indigenous women photographers. I’m delighted to discover Van Camp also writes adult novels. I must check those out sometime!
The Pencil by Susan Avingaq and Maren Vsetula, Illustrated by Charlene Chua
Inspired by Susan Avingaq’s childhood memories of growing up in an iglu, The Pencil tells the story of three siblings who covet the only pencil in their iglu, which their mother uses to write letters. When their mother leaves for the day, they try to entertain themselves with their toys. But when their father brings out the pencil, they begin drawing on their only piece of paper. By the time their mother returns, only a little bit of the pencil is left. I love this tale about using possessions wisely and valuing what we have. The trio also collaborated on the picture book Fishing with Grandma.
Birdsong by Julie Flett
Julie Flett, of Cree-Metis heritage, is a prolific illustrator with fifteen illustrated picture books–nine collaborations with other Indigenous Canadian authors, and six she authored herself. She’s one of my favorite contemporary illustrators. Birdsong is her most recent picture book, and, despite loving all her work, I find it the most visually stunning, with simplistic, wide illustrations and earth tones. It’s about a little girl who moves to a new town and doesn’t feel at home until she befriends an elderly neighbor over their shared love for art. It’s a book children and adults will equally enjoy. And I recommend checking out all her other books as well.
Sweetest Kulu by Celina Kalluk, Illustrated by Alexandria Neonakis
This is another children’s book that would make a wonderful baby shower gift. Narrated by his mother, in Sweetest Kulu, animals visit the newborn Kulu, and bestow upon him special gifts: “Polar Bear, with powerful instinct, taught you to always treat animals with respect and to never scold them. Polar Bear made an offering of gentleness, making you a modest and kind Kulu.” Celina Kalluk is an Inuit artist, who is perhaps best known for her throat singing.
I Am Not a Number by Dr. Jenny Kay Dupuis and Kathy Kacer, Illustrated by Gillian Newland
This picture book is an essential read for elementary-aged children. It tells the story of a young First Nations girl being taken away from her family and sent to a residential school. She’s lonely, scared, and both physically and mentally abused while there. Though disturbing, it’s important for children to know about this not so distant history and the horrors of residential schools. Author Dr. Jenny Kay Dupuis is a member of Nipissing First Nation.
Shi-shi-etko and Shin-chi’s Canoe by Nicola I. Campbell, Illustrated by Kim LaFave
These two are the other essential picture book reads about residential schools. In the first book, Shi-shi-etko prepares for her imminent departure to a residential school by gathering her most precious memories together, the ones she never ever wants to forget, and by spending time with her family. The second book is told from the perspective of Shi-shi-etko’s little brother, Shin-chi, as they leave their family and are taken to the residential school. He takes comfort in a wooden canoe his father carved for him before they left, and eventually finds a friend. Both the prose and illustrations work together to give a poetic and heartbreaking testament to the horrors of residential schools, while also being child-appropriate. I challenge anyone not to cry the first time you read them. Nicola Campbell is Nłe7kepmx, Syilx, and Métis, and has written several children’s books.
The Qalupalik by Elisha Kilabuk, Illustrated by Joy Ang
In Inuit legends, the qalupalik lurks beneath the sea and sometimes steals children and carries them beneath the water on its back. When an orphan encounters one, he’s at first terrified, but soon finds the qalupalik isn’t nearly as smart as he is. This is a fantastic, creepy little picture book with a good ending. Elisha Kilabuk was born and raised in Iqaluit and learned traditional stories from his mother, Muckpaloo.
What’s My Superpower? by Aviaq Johnston, Illustrated by Tim Mack
Everyday Nalvana discovers a superpower in one of her friends and tells her mom all about it. But when will her own superpower show itself?! While it’s important to read books about the history of Indigenous Canadians, it’s equally vital to show them in contemporary times living a normal child’s life. I love this book’s message, and the illustrations are equally sweet. Aviaq Johnston is an Inuk author from Igloolik, Nunavut. She’s written several books, including young adult novels.
Awâsis and the World-Famous Bannock by Dallas Hunt, Illustrated by Amanda Strong
This may be the most adorable book on the list. It includes basic Cree words with a pronunciation guide and a recipe for bannock at the end! Awâsis is supposed to deliver bannock to her grandmother who lives in the woods. But while the story may begin like “Little Red Riding Hood,” it soon diverges as Awâsis drops the bannock and is aided by the creatures in the forest in recovering it. This simple picture book shows the reciprocity between the natural world and humanity and also honors the Cree language and storytelling traditions. Dallas Hunt is a member of Wapisewsipi (Swan River First Nation).