Native / First Nations / American Indian Literature for Youth

Case-study
Hearts Unbroken by Cynthia Leitich Smith

It took me a long time to write this post. I don’t mean to be harsh, especially in the light of such important ideas embedded within the book. However, I felt that the author was short in her attempt to entice readers. In Venezuela we have a saying “Mató al trigre y le tuvo miedo al cuero” which means, she killed the tiger but was afraid of the hide” In other words, the writer chose a controversial idea but remained short in developing it.

This is a contemporary narrative with credible Native American characters on a well defined setting in a predominantly white town. The book is a teenage romance, spiced up with high school issues, and mixed with minorities discrimination situations. In its core, it is about the recognition and pride of being an Indian American.

The book takes the reader into the experiences of an Indian American young woman journey from Junior to Senior year. The author uses the selection of the cast for the Wizard of Oz school musical to paint the underlying discrimination and stereotyping that runs underneath the town white culture. Good faith mistakes and misunderstandings as well as terrible, aggressive actions are depicted in the story. However, Louise, the main character, is not particularly interesting, at least for the eyes of this reviewer. Her brother, Hughie, on the other hand, brings to the book a compelling story. Hughie, after being accepted,against all odds, to be part of the cast for the Wizard of Oz performance, opts not to perform the day of the event. His decision was based on the discovery of the strong racist views of the Wizard of Oz’s author, Frank Baum. Hughie couldn’t either accept or condone his own performance without considering himself a coward and a traitor to his roots. This is a provoking idea, one that would have been interesting if it would have been elaborated a little deeper. This character decision is controversial, which makes it interesting and thought-provoking, but the author doesn’t elaborate much on him, or any other character, for that matter, in the light of his discovery. 

Either action, to act or not to act, convey powerful messages. Exploring those ideas within the book would have provided a profound impact on the reader. Is it more important to react against a 100 years old, horrible, racist comments by an author or to act in a diversified play with actors of all colors? The topic is tremendously complex and relevant. Nonetheless, the author seems to handle it with too much restrain by giving more presence to the feminine character, instead of her brother. Perhaps, in an effort to make it readable for a larger audience, the writer treats the problem with little controversy. She appears to be more concerned with the town’s reaction to an African American Dorothy than the issue that is tearing Hughie apart. Even the anonymous letters and the attack at the siblings’ house seemed somehow unresolved at the end of the book. Not because readers don’t find out who did those acts, but for the lack of development within the story. 

It is also noticeable that there isn’t any relevant interaction between Hughie and Chelsea, the African American interpreting Dorothy. Critical elements of the narrative are disconnected and that same disconnection is sensed on the readers’ side towards the plot.

As mentioned above, this is a book with credible characters, in a contemporary setting, involved in realistic situations, with an interesting underlying idea but, unfortunately, within a tepid plot that lacks the power to engage.

List of resources 

Organizations

Awards

Blogs and Websites

Reviews

Books

  • Multicultural Children’s Literature Through the Eyes of Many Children by Donna E. Norton
  • Multicultural Children’s Literature. A Critical Issues Approach by Ambika Gopalakrishnan
  • Hearing All the Voices by Mary Ann Darby & Miki Pryne

“Top 5 Books” list

Spirit Walker
Poems by Nancy Wood
Paintings by Frank Howell

The author of the poems is not a Native American by birth or heritage. She is, however, someone that has lived for a long time in close contact with the Native American way of life in Santa Fe, New Mexico. This book is an approach to the mysticism and spirituality that is embedded in native culture. The poems are accompanied by stunning paintings of sheer beauty. This is art filled with love.

Children of the Midnight Sun. Young Native voices of Alaska
Profiles by Tricia Brown
Photographs: Roy Corral

Filled with tenderness and admiration for the native villagers of Alaska, this book contains 8 different life stories of kids belonging to Alaskan cultures. They are rich in details and photographic materials that portray the daily lives of children proud of their native heritage, their families, and their villages.

The book depicts the marvelous, and sometimes harsh, situations that define their everyday and make them close to the reader by creating an extraordinary bridge of empathy and understanding.

When the Rain Sings
Poems by Young Native Americans

The book is magnificent collection of poems by children ranging from 7 to 17 years of age. Separated by tribes, the book shows a range of beautiful -and painful- poems that collect the ideas and feelings of Indian youngsters all over the United States. The book also contains historical photographs, artifacts, and artistic creations archived by the Smithsonian Institution, which makes this an emotional as well as an educational reading.

Dreaming in Indian
Contemporary Native American Voices

This is an impressive book at different levels. On one hand, it contains writings by Native American young adults filled with raw emotions. As raw as it can be expected from adolescents that are trying to figure out their place in the world. Ranging from poems on poverty to essays on alcoholism and prostitution, to art and love, the book is filled of emotions, ideas, and creativity.

On the other hand, the book design is complex and elaborated. Each voice is accompanied by stunning graphics and photographs. This is a book that embraces a variety of experiences and cultures. It is a reading that comprises a multifaceted view of contemporary Native Americans struggles and successes.

The Absolute True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
By Sherman Alexie
Art by Ellen Forney

Hidden under a patina of humor, the author tackles the bleak lives of many Native Americans currently living in reservations. The writer is not afraid to talk about poverty, alcoholism, and the lack of education and opportunities that overwhelm the lives of many Indians. However, as bitter as that may sound, the author manages to create a stream of optimism. The main character, Arnold, who struggles to find his own place, is torn between his Native heritage while attending a White school outside the Reservation. Arnold has to find his own path. He has to make way for himself, not exempt of pain, though. While preserving his pride as a Native and his goal to succeed in school, he uncovers pain, the weight of death of those close to him, the dragging effect of addiction that invades the life on the Reservation, and above all, the anger, represented by his very best Native friend Rowdy. The latter is an interesting character that serves as the measuring rod for Arnold’s evolution. Rowdy uncovers, in the middle of his rage for Arnold’s “treason”, the real power of the main character, which is his extraordinary strength to move on -as the old nomadic tribes- in order to survive while understanding the nature -and the cultures- around him.  

The images accompanying the story are, supposedly, the drawings of Arnold, who uses them as a way to understand and express his feelings. They are charged with emotions as well as critical comments and observations. These drawings are a powerful addition to the reading.  Additionally, they also help to lighten the mood, making it easier for young readers. The comic aspect of the images, make them accessible and funny without hiding the difficult story behind it.

Winner of the 2007 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature

Authors

Sherman Alexie
Shonto Begay
Joseph Bruchac
Louise Erdrich
Joy Harjo
Michael Lacapa
George Littlechild
Leslie Marmon Silko
Cynthia Leitich Smith
Tim Tingle
Traci Sorell