National Museum of the American Indian

Happy holidays! Six favorite picture books from imagiNATIONS Story & Discovery

Children's books written by Native American authors or by non-Natives who have consulted with Native communities highlight the diversity of Native cultures throughout the Western Hemisphere. (All images courtesy of the publishers)
Children's books written by Native American authors or by non-Natives who have consulted with Native communities highlight the diversity of Native cultures throughout the Western Hemisphere. (All images courtesy of the publishers)

Every month the staff of the Washington museum’s imagiNATIONS Activity Center highlights a different book during our Story & Discovery program. We choose books written by Native American authors or by non-Native authors who have consulted with Native communities. By choosing the books in our story program with care to showcase the diversity of Native cultures throughout the Western Hemisphere, we hope to break down stereotypes. Thinking critically about the characters and illustrations in these books is also a great way to help young children develop empathy and cultural sensitivity skills. This holiday season we are sharing six of our favorite books that we think would make great gifts for kids age 5 to 7.

Berry Magic written and illustrated by Teri Sloat and Betty Huffmon (Yup’ik)
Community focus: Yup’ik, Alaska
Why we love this book: Berry Magic is one of our tried and true program books; we have been using it for years! Yup’ik Elder Betty Huffmon shared this traditional story of how berries came to her people with author and illustrator Teri Sloat. Their collaboration produced a book with beautiful pictures, Yup’ik vocabulary words, a song to sing together, and even a recipe for akutaq, a traditional Yup’ik dish made with berries!

Hungry Johnny written by Cheryl Minnema (Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe), illustrated by Wesley Ballinger (Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe)
Community focus: Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, Minnesota
Why we love this book: Johnny is a very relatable character who just wants to eat, eat, eat! This book touches on some common holiday themes, such as food and community gatherings, while teaching the value of patience and the importance of respecting elders. Hungry Johnny is also full of Ojibwe imagery that inspires close looking, such as wild rice cooking on a stove and traditionally beaded jewelry and clothing.

The Goat in the Rug written by Charles L. Blood and Martin Link, illustrated by Nancy Winslow Parker
Community focus: Navajo (Diné), Arizona
Why we love this book: This fun story is told by Geraldine, a goat whose wool is woven into a rug by her Navajo friend Glenmae. Based on a true story from Window Rock, Arizona, The Goat in the Rug teaches the complex process of creating Navajo rugs in a way children can understand and appreciate. Geraldine’s unique insight and sense of humor make this a book that adults and kids will enjoy reading together! 

Thunder Boy Jr. written by Sherman Alexie (Spokane and Coeur d’Alene), illustrated by Yuyu Morales
Community focus: Spokane, Washington, and Coeur d’Alene, Idaho
Why we love this book: The character of Thunder Boy Jr. is a great depiction of a contemporary Native child—he strums a guitar, rides his bike, plays (and fights) with his sister, and is a powwow grass dancer. He also hates his name. Read along as Thunder Boy Jr. learns to navigate his relationship with his father, Thunder Boy Sr., through love, respect, and understanding.

Gecko and Mosquito written and illustrated by Melissa DeSica
Community focus: Native Hawai’ian
Why we love this book: At the museum we strive to promote the preservation and use of indigenous languages. This book delightfully pairs Hawai’ian language with rhyming text that begs to be read aloud! A glossary in the back of the book provides translations and pronunciation for the Hawai’ian words. Bright and colorful illustrations complement this entertaining story about the harms of bullying.

When Turtle Grew Feathers by Tim Tingle (Choctaw), illustrated by Stacey Schuett
Community focus: Choctaw, Oklahoma
Why we love this book: Classic stories are told in many different ways throughout the world. The Choctaw version of the age-old race between the tortoise and the hare, for example, may be a little different from the one you know! This account features a turkey wearing a turtle shell, an adorable cheering squad of baby turtles, and lovely paintings of the High Plains. In the end, Rabbit still gets his comeuppance and Turtle learns the value of a helpful friend.  

We hope our recommendations remind you of how wonderful it is to share a book, as reader or listener. Join us at the National Museum of the American Indian on the National Mall for imagiNATIONS Story & Discovery! Our current program times are Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays at 11:15 a.m.

Recommended age: 3+
Please note: Groups (e.g., school or home school classes, daycare, camp, or scout groups, etc.) are required to schedule entry time to the imagiNATIONS Activity Center.
The Smithsonian museums are open every day of the year except December 25. Happy holidays!

Leah Thomas is an educator at the National Museum of the American Indian’s imagiNATIONS Activity Center in Washington, D.C. Her work includes developing culturally appropriate family programs, creating partnerships with local organizations, and educating pre-k to 3rd grade school groups. In addition to having a background in museum education, she holds an M.A. in art history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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