In case you’re new to the Pond’s book recommendation posts, the recommendation posts are brought to you by Varian, the Pond’s very own Toadshifter who is knowledgeable in all kinds of magic! One of Varian’s ambitions is to get better at sewing, hence why whenever Varian has come up with their latest costume, they will always recommend a few books that inspired them!
November is Native-American Heritage Month, and we wanted to share the joy of indigenous books with you all! Heritage Months are a call to reflect on and thoughtfully engage with colonial histories and realities, but they can also be an opportunity for us to uplift and celebrate achievements of Indigenous people. Though today’s book recommendation post takes place during Native-American Heritage Month, our hope is that you will read these books, not just in November, but also every other year of the month as well and engage with Indigenous literature all year long.
Although today’s book recommendations post commemorates Native-American Heritage Month and thus contains books by Native-American authors, I wanted to take the opportunity to recommend books by indigenous authors living outside of the United States – specifically, in Canada and closer to home in Aotearoa (New Zealand) and Australia. I’m incredibly excited to share these book recommendations of Indigenous books that I loved, and I hope that you will love them as much as I did.
Sisters of the Neversea by Cynthia Leitich Smith
In this modern take of the popular classic Peter Pan, award-winning author Cynthia Leitich Smith (Muscogee Creek) brilliantly shifts the focus from the boy who won’t grow up to Native American Lily and English Wendy—stepsisters who must face both dangers and wonders to find their way back to the family they love.
Stepsisters Lily and Wendy embark on a high-flying journey of magic, adventure, and courage—to a fairy-tale island known as Neverland.
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.
A boy who calls himself Peter Pan.
Friends who love retellings, gather around: Cynthia Leitich Smith has given us a Native-American Peter Pan retelling and it is absolutely brilliant.
- Sisters of the Neversea captures the wonder and adventure of Peter Pan, but also explores and critiques the colonial undertones, misogyny, and racist depictions of Native-Americans inherent in the original story.
- The storytelling in this was wonderful; it breaks the fourth-wall often and I just loved how it makes you feel like you, the reader, are in on what’s going on with the narrator.
- This story is such a wondrous adventure, one that readers of all ages will love exploring and discovering, complemented with fantastic character arcs where characters like Belle and Peter are given so much depth, their characters and motivations and their thoughts fleshed out and explored.
Falling into Rarohenga by Steph Matuku
It seems like an ordinary day when Tui and Kae, sixteen-year-old twins, get home from school – until they find their mother, Maia, has disappeared and a swirling vortex has opened up in her room. They are sucked into this portal and dragged down to Rarohenga, the Māori Underworld, a shadowy place of infinite dark levels, changing landscapes and untrustworthy characters. Maia has been kidnapped by their estranged father, Tema, enchanted to forget who she really is and hidden somewhere here. Tui and Kae have to find a way through this maze, outwit the shady characters they meet, break the spell on their mother, and escape to the World of Light before the Goddess of Shadows or Tema holds them in Rarohenga forever.
I’m delighted to give a book recommendation that is personally close to home for me – Falling into Rarohenga is a fantastic portal fantasy into Rarohenga, the Māori Underworld, packed full with Māori atua (gods) and mythology.
- I loved the adventure into Rarohenga, where we get to meet Māori gods, goddesses, and mythological beings (like the beloved taniwha!). More, Falling into Rarohenga is an epic celebration of Māoritanga.
- This is a quest adventure story at its finest – set in a place where the world tries to make you stay, with challenges that test character and will, and also
- If you love stories about siblings and the ups and downs of siblinghood – from annoying each other, to getting on each other’s nerves, but also how they learn from one another and grow stronger because of their bond with another.
Ancestor Approved: Intertribal Stories for Kids edited by Cynthia Leitich Smith
A collection of intersecting stories set at a powwow that bursts with hope, joy, resilience, the strength of community, and Native pride.
In a high school gym full of color and song, Native families from Nations within the borders of the U.S. and Canada dance, sell beadwork and books, and celebrate friendship and heritage. They are the heroes of their own stories.
Featured contributors: Joseph Bruchac, Art Coulson, Christine Day, Eric Gansworth, Dawn Quigley, Carole Lindstrom, Rebecca Roanhorse, David A. Robertson, Andrea L. Rogers, Kim Rogers, Cynthia Leitich Smith, Monique Gray Smith, Traci Sorell, Tim Tingle, Erika T. Wurth, and Brian Young.
This anthology highlights the joy, strength, and pride of being Native-American, and I just loved this so much. This story radiates so much love and hope, and a celebration of Native-American culture and tradition.
- This anthology contains stories that intersecting one another and all take place in a powwow, from the perspective of different Native-American kids from different tribes – and also from the perspective of a rez dog!
- The heartwarming stories explore a wealth of themes, things that kids, especially Native-American kids, will really relate to: family, belonging, bravery, loneliness, friendship, and making hard choices. There was not a story I didn’t enjoy; I genuinely loved all and how they each painted a different picture and perspective within the powwow.
- I enjoyed that the stories were a celebration of Native-American identity – and the many beautiful ways that being Native-American can be different and mean different things to Native kids.
Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley
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 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.
Firekeeper’s Daughter is a mystery/thriller centered on the meth epidemic during the 2000’s, but I think it’s also more than that. It’s also a story about Native/Indigenous identity, belonging, love, science, and community – and I loved this debut.
- As well as a mystery, the story also paints a very complex and nuanced picture of Daunis’s life. Her birth was a scandal, and we see the ways that this impacts her sense of identity and belonging. She’s part of her Ojibwe community, but she struggles with how others have defined her identity.
- I also loved that this book highlights indigenous sciences, and how Daunis uses her knowledge for traditional medicine to uncover clues and make links to find answers.
- There’s also a romance and I really enjoyed how it interwove with the story. The mystery aspect is at the forefront, but I liked that the complexity of the romance, complementing the story.
The Boy From the Mish by Gary Lonesborough
‘I don’t paint so much anymore,’ I say, looking to my feet.
‘Oh. Well, I got a boy who needs to do some art. You can help him out,’ Aunty Pam says, like I have no say in the matter, like she didn’t hear what I just said about not painting so much anymore. ‘Jackson, this is Tomas. He’s living with me for a little while.’
It’s a hot summer, and life’s going all right for Jackson and his family on the Mish. It’s almost Christmas, school’s out, and he’s hanging with his mates, teasing the visiting tourists, avoiding the racist boys in town. Just like every year, Jackson’s Aunty and annoying little cousins visit from the city – but this time a mysterious boy with a troubled past comes with them… As their friendship evolves, Jackson must confront the changing shapes of his relationships with his friends, family and community. And he must face his darkest secret – a secret he thought he’d locked away for good.
The Boy from the Mish is my first forray into Australian Aboriginal literature, but it won’t be my last – The Boy from the Mish is a rollercoaster of emotions and a story about being queer, Black, and Aboriginal.
- At times funny, at times heart-wrenching, the story is about Jackson who navigates his friendship and budding crush on Tomas, who stays with his family over the Christmas holidays after a stint in juvie.
- The story explores Jackson’s sexuality – namely, his internalised homophobia, his fear of coming out, coming to terms with being gay, and where his gay identity places him within his community.
- The Boy from the Mish is also a great summer read – it’s atmospheric with its portrait of rural Australia with sticky heat, the humour in this is great, but it’s also hopeful and ultimately comforting.
Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger
Imagine an America very similar to our own. It’s got homework, best friends, and pistachio ice cream.
There are some differences. This America has been shaped dramatically by the magic, monsters, knowledge, and legends of its peoples, those Indigenous and those not. Some of these forces are charmingly everyday, like the ability to make an orb of light appear or travel across the world through rings of fungi. But other forces are less charming and should never see the light of day.
Elatsoe lives in this slightly stranger America. She can raise the ghosts of dead animals, a skill passed down through generations of her Lipan Apache family. Her beloved cousin has just been murdered in a town that wants no prying eyes. But she is going to do more than pry. The picture-perfect facade of Willowbee masks gruesome secrets, and she will rely on her wits, skills, and friends to tear off the mask and protect her family.
If you are looking for a fresh paranormal story that will show you that there’s so much more unchartered territory in the genre, then I think you will love Elatsoe as much as I did.
- Following Lipan Apache teen, Ellie who can raise the ghosts of dead animals, Elatsoe creatively interweaves Native-American identity and paranormal folklore and myths, with a storytelling feel that, to me, feels like ‘warm yet spooky’.
- I loved that this was a love letter to storytelling. Many parts of Ellie’s past and adventure are connected to a story about her family history and ancestry, and I thought that was gorgeous; that our ancestors live on in the stories that we pass on.
- There’s no romance in this book, and I loved the friendships – especially between Ellie and Jay, her blonde himbo best friend, and Kirby, the spirit of her dead dog.
The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline
Humanity has nearly destroyed its world through global warming, but now an even greater evil lurks. The indigenous people of North America are being hunted and harvested for their bone marrow, which carries the key to recovering something the rest of the population has lost: the ability to dream. In this dark world, Frenchie and his companions struggle to survive as they make their way up north to the old lands. For now, survival means staying hidden but what they don’t know is that one of them holds the secret to defeating the marrow thieves.
One of the most thoughtful and heartwrenching dystopian novels I’ve ever read, The Marrow Thieves is brilliant and a poignant exploration into traumas of the past, reimagined.
- This isn’t like the ‘action-packed’ dystopian novels that plagued the early 2010’s. Rather, The Marrow Thieves is a deliberately paced story about a future in which climate change has wrecked the earth and people have lost their ability to dream – all except indigenous people in North America.
- Set in Canada, the story thoughtfully explores the traumatic histories of colonial violence inflicted upon indigenous peoples, and draws parallels to the horror and violence within the story – specifically, the kidnapping of indigenous people, residential schools, and the loss of identity, elders, and community connection.
- The relationships in the story – the characters with each other and their relationships with their identity and tribe – are a centerpiece of this story, and highlight that against all odds, fighting for each other is so important.
The Sea in Winter by Christine Day
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?
What do you do when your future, your dream, is shattered by a life-changing accident? How do you pick up the pieces of your life? I loved The Sea in Winter, and a Makah/Piscataway girl’s dream of becoming a ballerina.
- This gorgeous middle-grade story blew me away with its simple yet profound exploration of a grief that we don’t talk about enough: the grief of losing your dream and thus your identity.
- When Maisie’s dream to become a ballerina are side-lined after a devastating injury, the story centers and explores her grief as she navigates the fraught journey of recovery and with it the sadness, the anger, and feeling lost.
- If you read this, be sure to read the Author’s Note, which offered a great learning opportunity for me, specifically on the thoughtfulness behind the chapter titles and the Elwha River Restoration Project.
Healer of the Water Monster by Brian Young
When Nathan goes to visit his grandma, Nali, at her mobile summer home on the Navajo reservation, he knows he’s in for a pretty uneventful summer. Still, he loves spending time with Nali, and with his uncle Jet—though it’s clear when Jet arrives that he brings his problems with him.
One night, while lost in the nearby desert, Nathan finds something extraordinary. A Holy Being from the Navajo Creation Story—a Water Monster—in need of help.
Now Nathan must summon all his courage to save his new friend. With the help of other Navajo Holy Beings, Nathan is determined to save the Water Monster, and to help Uncle Jet heal from his own pain.
Healer of the Water Monster is such an underappreciated gem, but such a wonderful read that I wholeheartedly enjoyed. Bonus: If you pick this up, try get a hold of the audiobook – it is beautifully narrated!
- Inspired and interwoven with Navajo culture and science, this story is about a young boy’s friendship with a Holy Being and his mission to save him.
- I loved that the story explores friendship, even with the most unlikeliest of beings, and bravery. There’s also this heartfelt subplot about Nathan’s uncle who is a war veteran who has PTSD, and it explores the hard road of recovery.
- The story is told with so much love – and humour! In the story, Nathan gets a pendant that allows him to speak to creatures – and the conversations that he has with them, especially the ones that he has with the spider – are so much fun.