Diverse MG Lit #4 American Indian Books

November is traditionally the month of focus on American Indian history, and fortunately there is much to celebrate this year. It was my very great pleasure to hear many Indigenous authors and poets reading and discussing their work at the Portland Book Festival. One among them was Tommy Orange the author of the National Book Award nominee THERE, THERE. It’s not a book designed for the MG audience but it is within reach of strong readers who are looking for hard-hitting contemporary realism. I think many seventh and eighth grade readers would find much to love. It is the intertwined story of twelve people on their way to a powwow in Oakland and offers plenty of ideas for the thoughtful reader to absorb and discuss.
It was also my great pleasure to hear a reading and discussion of their poetry from Trevino Brings Plenty, Laura Da’, and Layli Long Soldier. They are all three contributors to the anthology NEW POETS OF NATIVE NATIONS edited by Heid Erdrich. This is also a book published for the adult market. But of all adult writing I think poetry can be the most accessible to younger readers. Here is a snippet of example from a poem called Passive Voice by Laura Da’ a middle school teacher and Eastern Shawnee.

Passive Voice

Laura Da’

I use a trick to teach students
how to avoid passive voice.
Circle the verbs.
Imagine inserting “by zombies”
after each one.
Have the words been claimed
by the flesh-hungry undead?
if so, passive voice
This poem goes on and becomes even more searing and evocative with each line, talking about how the crimes of the past against indigenous people are usually reported in the passive voice. Now there’s a conversation I’d love to have in the classroom. I am beyond excited to read all the poems in this anthology and to follow the literary careers launched there.
On the more traditional side of MG publishing Joseph Bruchac has a new novel TWO ROADS. Much has been written about the abuses of the Indian Boarding Schools and it’s easy, if you don’t live in the west, to think that Indian boarding schools are a thing of the past. Although most of them closed 80 to 100 years ago, some operated much longer and under slightly reformed conditions. Bruchac’s story takes place in 1932 and is about a Creek Indian boy, Cal Black, and his father a WWI veteran who live a transient life. When the father decides to join a protest with other veterans in Washington to demand their wartime bonuses, he decides to leave his son at the Challagi Indian School in Oklahoma. The most brutal practices of the Indian schools are past at the time of this story, still there is much hardship to endure. Even so Cal learns about his own culture and gains the strength of knowing other young men of his tribe.  This resonates with the stories I have heard from elders who attended Indian schools in the 1930s and 40s. They found much hardship there, but they also found their voice as Native people and a community that would go on to become part of many of the movements, AIM and others, that lead to the recent pipeline protests. Two Roads is an important book and one that I hope will be widely read.
Also on the topic of Indian schools but originating in Canada is SPEAKING OUR TRUTH: A Journey of Reconciliation by Monique Gray Smith. It is a larger format, photo illustrated work of non-fiction about the journey of reconciliation addressing Canada’s past, present and future relationship with its First Nations People. Monique Gray Smith asks her readers to leave behind these attitudes
  • I’ve heard this all before
  • Reconciliation doesn’t involve me or my friends or my family
  • History isn’t important
  • I, as one person, can’t make a difference
She organizes her book according to Seven Sacred Teachings: Honesty, Respect, Love, Courage, Truth, Humility, and Wisdom. The book is packed with information. It’s a book to read slowly. Every few pages there is a spot illustration of a drum and an invitation to reflect. Definitions are placed on the page where the words first occur in addition to a glossary in the back. I thought the book would make me feel sad and ashamed but because so much of it is focused on things everyone can do now to make it better I felt much hope by the end. This book is rooted in Canadian history but the issues are so similar to American ones that I think you could use it in the US. But I’d love to see and American version of this concept too.
And finally I want to call attention to a group of picture book legends. Many teachers are looking for authentic indigenous legends to use in the curriculum and want to make sure they are using books of the best quality. I think when it comes to traditional tales, the way to get the authentic versions we are looking for is to have the tribes publish themselves. The Sealaska Heritage Institute does just this. Their award winning books are produced from start to finish by professional indigenous storytellers, world-class indigenous artists and indigenous publishers. They have an imprint called Baby Raven Reads which focuses on stories from the Tlingit, Tsimshian, and Haida traditions. There are many beautiful books in this imprint. I’m going to highlight Shanyaak’utlaax—Salmon Boy edited by Johnny Marks, Hans Chester, David Katzeek, Nora Dauenhauer and Richard Dauenhauer and illustrated by Michaela Goade. It is the Tlingit story of a boy who disrespects the salmon his mother gives him and is swept away into the ocean to meet the Salmon People. It is written in Lingít and English with a Lingít audio available on line. Michaela Goade is a Tlingit Raven from the Kiks.ádi clan of Sitka, Alaska. These books are not available through the normal channels but don’t be discouraged you can get them through Taku Graphics in Juneau, AK. Email Katrina Woolford at orders@takugraphics.com for more information. Learn more about Baby Raven Reads at www.sealaskaheritage.org.
If you have a favorite book with Native American characters, please share it in the comments.

Building Community for Children’s WOC/Indigenous Writers

Art installation at the Loft Literary Center in 2017

Children’s writers of color and Indigenous writers have voices that need to be heard and stories that need to be told. In Minneapolis, Minnesota, the Loft Literary Center is helping that happen with a series of drop-in classes for Writers of Color and Indigenous Writers. This writing center is truly a special place for writers in the Twin Cities. For me, it’s where my writers’ group meets and also where I’ve had the opportunity to learn from experienced writers through classes and lectures. It’s a place of community where writers of all kinds can learn, grow, and connect.

For the Writers of Color and Indigenous Writers series of classes, each one focuses on a different writing topic and is taught “from the perspective of writers of color and Indigenous writers, meaning that the unique experiences of these writers are accounted for in the materials provided to the class discussions,” says Marion Gómez, Program Associate for these classes at the Loft.

I asked Marion (MG) a few questions about the series of classes (now in its third year), and also talked with Sarah Warren (SW), an instructor of the children’s writers class in the series. Here are their thoughts on finding community and support for children’s writers of color and Indigenous writers.

Marion, how did this series of classes start and how has it changed over the years?

MG: The class came out of a collaboration between David Mura and the Loft. David Mura approached the Loft with the idea of him teaching a class intended for writers or color and Indigenous writers that would address some of the barriers these communities often face—such as cost and participants having unpredictable schedules. The Loft received a Minnesota State Arts Board Arts Learning grant in 2015 to fund a free, multi-genre class with drop-in attendance taught by David Mura. The class began in February of 2016, meeting the first and second Wednesdays of each month until August, 2016.

David Mura taught the first and second years exclusively, but this last year Diego Vázquez Jr., Vanessa Ramos, Michael Kleber-Diggs, Heid E. Erdrich, Kao Kalia Yang, Sarah Park Dahlen, Erin Sharkey, and Sarah Warren joined David in teaching the class, each teaching one session with David teaching the first and last classes. This last August, Sarah Park Dahlen taught a class that examined insider and outsider authorship in children’s books and in October, Sarah Warren taught an introductory class on writing children’s picture book biographies.

Sarah, how did you become involved with teaching for this series of classes?

SW: I started attending classes at the Loft over 17 years ago. I love to write and I’m grateful for opportunities to develop. The Loft is special. We get to learn from other authors. Instructors have a working knowledge of the field. I also appreciate the network of support I’ve cultivated from classes and conferences. I never would have found my footing in this profession without help from several mentors. Community is priceless. I’m proud that I get to contribute what I know as a teaching artist.

What do you think is most valuable about this series of classes at the Loft?

MG: Bringing more writers of color and Indigenous writers into the world is so important in combating racism and oppression. The more writers of color and Indigenous writers we have the more their truths will be heard, the less alone these writers and their communities will feel, and the more galvanized they’ll be to demand justice. I love the sense of community that has formed among the students. Some have even formed outside writing groups after meeting in the class.

SW: For most of us, sharing our stories with children means negotiating the publishing industry. That was a huge learning curve for me. I had worked so hard to build up my ego… to believe my art was something worth investing in. Once I started getting critiqued and rejected, my ego started to get beat down by outside perspectives. Sometimes, that was good! I needed to grow and learn and become a better writer. Sometimes, that was bad. The industry and the outside voices weren’t open to my cultural point-of-view. The problem was, I didn’t know the difference. I didn’t know when I needed to change, and when I needed to push back. Now, I have people I can go to when I need perspective. It took me way too long to find those people. I think classes like these can build a powerful network for POC/Indigenous writers.

I am all for building a space where artists of color and indigenous artists can get feedback, offer support, and share wisdom without feeling exoticized, humiliated, tokenized, abnormal, or lonely. I’ve felt all of those things (usually not at the same time) in class. It’s stressful.

Marion, what kinds of students attend, what do they say about the classes, and how does the Loft get students involved?

MG: The students vary in age, race, experience level, and type of writing they do. Some of the students have also taught a session of the class and/or are published authors while others are very new it writing. What I hear repeatedly from them is that they love being around other writers of color and Indigenous writers. That this intentional space allows them to feel less isolated and free to express themselves more fully. After we received the grant in 2015, we held three preview classes at various locations in Minneapolis and Saint Paul to reach out to perspective students as well as promoted the class at Loft events and on social media. The classes are listed in our quarterlies, which are distributed throughout the Twin Cities. I also have a listserv of past and present participants I send a monthly email to, letting them know about upcoming classes and other opportunities, and I’m always inviting new writers of color and indigenous writers to the class I meet. I’m so grateful to you, Karen, for helping spread the word through the Mixed-Up Files blog!

Sarah, how do you think children’s publishing will benefit from having more writers of color and Indigenous writers? 

SW: I heard Daniel José Older say in an interview, “To me, it’s a huge human rights violation, to deny an entire generation of young people of color…generation after generation of young people of color the right to see ourselves as protagonists in stories. How else are we to conceptualize ourselves as protagonists in our lives if not through the stories we are told?” That’s me he’s talking about. I never saw myself in stories unless I suspended my own personhood and slipped fully into someone else’s skin. We need the chance to grow up seeing many possible versions of ourselves. The community of writers serving kids should be just as diverse as its audience.

What do you suggest for other writing centers hoping to start similar programs?

MG: I recommend they start by listening to the communities they want to serve so that they can design a program that really addresses the needs and desires of these communities.

SW: Not all writers are comfortable calling themselves experts or teachers. Some of us don’t even feel comfortable calling ourselves writers! Find a way to mentor potential teaching artists. Be open to unconventional teaching styles. Accommodate students who aren’t comfortable in formalized educational settings by seeking out safe community spaces. Make sure to pay your artists!

What do you suggest for children’s writers of color and Indigenous writers wanting support and instruction in writing?

MG: Come to the class! We will have at least two classes focused on writing for children/young adults in the next round starting this spring. The Loft also has a new mentorship program for writers of color and Indigenous writers called Mirrors and Windows. Applications for this year have already closed but will be accepted again next summer (2019). The most important thing they can do is find a community that supports them.

SW: If you read things that resonate with you, contact the authors. Let them know their work struck a chord. Ask questions. Attend conferences and readings and classes. Ask questions. Read your work out loud. If you connect with other writers, form a group! Go to my website: sarahwbooks.com. Do you have questions? Email me! I’m happy to share resources. Keep writing. We need your voice!


Thanks so much for sharing your experiences with the Writers of Color and Indigenous Writers series of classes at the Loft, Marion and Sarah! To learn more about the Loft, visit https://www.loft.org. Are there any classes like these in your city? Tell us about them in the comments!

Marion Gómez is a poet and teaching artist based in Minneapolis. She has received grants from the Minnesota State Arts Board and the Jerome Foundation. Her poems have appeared in La Bloga, Mizna, and elsewhere. Her poem “Father Bought Mangos” was selected for the Saint Paul Almanac’s Impressions Project. She is a member of the Latinx spoken word collective Palabristas and works at the Loft.





Sarah is an early childhood educator who graduated from the Loft’s Master Track writing apprenticeship program in 2006. Her debut picture book, Dolores Huerta: A Hero to Migrant Workers was picked for the Amelia Bloomer Top Ten Book List and awarded a Jane Addams Peace Association Children’s Book Award honor. Her picture book about the singer Beyoncé is forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin. Sarah’s family lives in Minneapolis with their dog, Bruce Valentine. Visit sarahwbooks.com.




Diversity in MG Lit #3 Hispanic American

October is Hispanic Heritage month and we are celebrating a bunch of new MG books featuring Latinx characters and authors
  • Charlie Hernández the league of shadows by Ryan Calejo
    • This debut novel is a fantasy adventure based in central American mythology. Charlie Hernández is a typical Miami middle schooler until his world is rocked by the loss of his home and parents. And then to make matters worse, he starts growing horns and feathers. In time he realizes that he is becoming a creature from his abuela’s stories and that like any other Morphling he’s got the fight of his life on his hands. Short chapters and heaps of action make this a good choice for a reluctant reader. This is Ryan Calejo’s first novel.
  • Merci Suárez Changes Gears by Meg Medina
    • Also set in Florida Merci Suárez is a contemporary 6th grader in a coming-of-age tale. Merci is a scholarship student at a private school and feels keenly her family’s lack of wealth even as she sees the treasure of living in a multigenerational household. This story sensitively addresses her grandfather’s Alzheimer’s disease. Meg Medina is prolific, writing picture books, chapter books, MG and YA novels. Her most recent Burn Baby Burn was long listed for the National Book Award in 2016 Meg Medina also has a story in the Ellen Oh’s short story collectionFlying Lessons.
  • Marcus Vega Doesn’t Speak Spanish by Pablo Cartaya
    • This contemporary coming-of-age story focuses on a fourteen year old boy who is big for his age and something of a trouble magnet. His white mother decides to return to pre hurricane Maria Puerto Rico to find Marcus’s father and help Marcus gain some perspective and connection with his extended family. This is Pablo Cartaya’s second novel for MG readers.
  • The Crossroads by Alexandra Diaz
    • In her 2016 novel The Only Road Alexandra Diaz recounted the tribulations of migrants escaping gang violence in Guatemala. The Crossroads picks up the story for 12 year old Jaime and Angela as they adjust to life in the US.
  • Dactyl Hill Squad by Daniel José Older
    • This historical fantasy is set during the American civil war in an alternate history featuring dinosaurs as the domestic servants of men. It is set in the Colored Orphan Assylum and features a group of Cuban children who lived there. It also encompasses imagined events of the New York City draft riots. Short on history but long on heart and daring adventure, this story will appeal to alternate history fans and reluctant readers alike.
  • Dragon Slayer: Folk tales from Latin America by Jaime Hernandez
    • This collection of three folk tales is rendered in appealing graphic novel format giving a contemporary flare to traditional folk tales.
There are of course many other great books about the Latinex experience and by Latinex authors. I’ve chosen these because they are new with a publishing date of September or October of this year. If you have other favorites please mention them in the comments. Independent bookstores and libraries have always been the champions of new and diverse books so please consider rewarding that advocacy by getting your books in person or by mail from your local public library or independent bookstore. You can order ebooks and audio books from an independent bookstore too.