June 5, 2021
Are you looking to diversify the books you read at home and in your classroom? This blog post started off as a list of my favourites. Once I shared the original post, thousands of teachers started sharing their own favourites— which I then added to my list. While most English teachers still teach from the literary canon of dead white males, why can’t Wagamese be taught next to Shakespeare? ⠀
It’s important for teachers to decolonize the bookshelves in their classrooms to not only meet the requirements of the new curriculum, but also to provide students with relatable stories. I’m a firm believer that we need to include content with indigenous voice because it’s simply good literature. I guarantee it will also help to expand your worldview.
I’m a white settler, and began my teaching career in 2005 teaching ESD and First Peoples’ English at the high school level. This was a huge learning curve, as I had not learned about residential schools until I got to university. I’m grateful to the many patient and caring mentors as indigenous teachers and support workers.
Some of the most poignant memories include:
I began teaching on the unceded traditional territory of Tseshaht and Hupacasath Nations, and now am on the unceded territory of Katzie, Kwantlen and Semiahmoo Nations. I was learning then. I’m still learning now. And I will continue to learn.
I encourage you to support your favourite local bookstores. I have ordered from Massy Books, which is Indigenous owned and was impressed with the customer service. Iron Dog Books, Goodminds and Strong Nations are also Indigenous owned Canadian bookstores that are worth checking out.
However, if you do choose to purchase from Amazon.ca during the month of June, 2021 and use these links at no additional cost to you, I will donate 100% earnings from commissions to IRSS Indian Residential School Survivors Society. I’ll track purchases and report out at the end of the month.
I listened to this book on Audible last summer, and was surprised how much I didn’t know about the Indian Act. It should be required reading (or listening) for all Canadians– especially White Settlers.
Based on a viral article, 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act is the essential guide to understanding the legal document and its repercussion on generations of Indigenous Peoples, written by a leading cultural sensitivity trainer.
Since its creation in 1876, the Indian Act has shaped, controlled, and constrained the lives and opportunities of Indigenous Peoples, and is at the root of many enduring stereotypes. Bob Joseph’s book comes at a key time in the reconciliation process, when awareness from both Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities is at a crescendo. Joseph explains how Indigenous Peoples can step out from under the Indian Act and return to self-government, self-determination, and self-reliance – and why doing so would result in a better country for every Canadian. He dissects the complex issues around truth and reconciliation, and clearly demonstrates why learning about the Indian Act’s cruel, enduring legacy is essential for the country to move toward true reconciliation.
I haven’t read this book yet, but clearly NEED TO. It’s on order. Reese Witherspoon made it part of her Young Adult book club and Michelle and Barack Obama are currently producing a Netflix series based on this novel. Sounds like a fantastic teaching resource to bring into our classrooms! This is also a nominee 2021-2022 Surrey Teen Reads awards.
With four starred reviews, Angeline Boulley’s debut novel, Firekeeper’s Daughter, is a groundbreaking YA thriller about a Native teen who must root out the corruption in her community.
Eighteen-year-old Daunis Fontaine has never quite fit in, both in her hometown and on the nearby Ojibwe reservation. She dreams of a fresh start at college, but when family tragedy strikes, Daunis puts her future on hold to look after 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, she senses the dashing hockey star is hiding something. Everything comes to light when Daunis witnesses a shocking murder, thrusting her into an FBI investigation of a lethal new drug.
Reluctantly, Daunis agrees to go undercover, drawing on her knowledge of chemistry and Ojibwe traditional medicine to track down the source. But the search for truth is more complicated than Daunis imagined, exposing secrets and old scars. At the same time, she grows concerned with an investigation that seems more focused on punishing the offenders than protecting the victims.
Now, as the deceptions-and deaths-keep growing, Daunis must learn what it means to be a strong Anishinaabe kwe (Ojibwe woman) and how far she’ll go for her community, even if it tears apart the only world she’s ever known.
I just ordered this book after a good friend strongly suggested I read it and add to this list. She said, “It’s the Canada Reads winner this year and the first winner from an Indigenous author. Through the whole book, I felt like I was having a beautiful conversation with someone I met in the bathroom of a bar”. I’m intrigued.
“You’re gonna need a rock and a whole lotta medicine” is a mantra that Jonny Appleseed, a young Two-Spirit/Indigiqueer, repeats to himself in this vivid and utterly compelling debut novel by poet Joshua Whitehead.
Off the reserve and trying to find ways to live and love in the big city, Jonny becomes a cybersex worker who fetishizes himself in order to make a living. Self-ordained as an NDN glitter princess, Jonny has one week before he must return to the “rez”–and his former life–to attend the funeral of his stepfather. The seven days that follow are like a fevered dream: stories of love, trauma, sex, kinship, ambition, and the heartbreaking recollection of his beloved kokum (grandmother). Jonny’s life is a series of breakages, appendages, and linkages–and as he goes through the motions of preparing to return home, he learns how to put together the pieces of his life.
Jonny Appleseed is a unique, shattering vision of First Nations life, full of grit, glitter, and dreams.
After my mom heard Michelle Good speak on CBC radio, she emailed me to suggest that we both read this book over the summer. This book is the 2020 Governor General’s Literary Award winner, which recognizes the best published books in Canada.
Taken from their families when they are very small and sent to a remote, church-run residential school, Kenny, Lucy, Clara, Howie and Maisie are barely out of childhood when they are finally released after years of detention.
Alone and without any skills, support or families, the teens find their way to the seedy and foreign world of Downtown Eastside Vancouver, where they cling together, striving to find a place of safety and belonging in a world that doesn’t want them. The paths of the five friends cross and crisscross over the decades as they struggle to overcome, or at least forget, the trauma they endured during their years at the Mission.
Fuelled by rage and furious with God, Clara finds her way into the dangerous, highly charged world of the American Indian Movement. Maisie internalizes her pain and continually places herself in dangerous situations. Famous for his daring escapes from the school, Kenny can’t stop running and moves restlessly from job to job—through fishing grounds, orchards and logging camps—trying to outrun his memories and his addiction. Lucy finds peace in motherhood and nurtures a secret compulsive disorder as she waits for Kenny to return to the life they once hoped to share together. After almost beating one of his tormentors to death, Howie serves time in prison, then tries once again to re-enter society and begin life anew.
With compassion and insight, Five Little Indians chronicles the desperate quest of these residential school survivors to come to terms with their past and, ultimately, find a way forward.
This book is ordered and added to my summer reading list. Have had it recommended by friends and avid readers I follow on instagram.
From the Ashes is a remarkable memoir about hope and resilience, and a revelatory look into the life of a Métis-Cree man who refused to give up. Abandoned by his parents as a toddler, Jesse Thistle briefly found himself in the foster-care system with his two brothers, cut off from all they had known. Eventually the children landed in the home of their paternal grandparents, whose tough-love attitudes quickly resulted in conflicts. Throughout it all, the ghost of Jesse’s drug-addicted father haunted the halls of the house and the memories of every family member. Struggling with all that had happened, Jesse succumbed to a self-destructive cycle of drug and alcohol addiction and petty crime, spending more than a decade on and off the streets, often homeless. Finally, he realized he would die unless he turned his life around.
In this heartwarming and heart-wrenching memoir, Jesse Thistle writes honestly and fearlessly about his painful past, the abuse he endured, and how he uncovered the truth about his parents. Through sheer perseverance and education—and newfound love—he found his way back into the circle of his Indigenous culture and family.
An eloquent exploration of the impact of prejudice and racism, From the Ashes is, in the end, about how love and support can help us find happiness despite the odds.
I picked up The Break when I was in Indigo getting a copy of Embers (see below). I was impressed with its Governor General’s Literary Award win, and also that it’s a ‘Heather’s Pick’. I read the first few pages and ended up bringing it home to add to my summer reading list.
When Stella, a young Métis mother, looks out her window one evening and spots someone in trouble on the Break — a barren field on an isolated strip of land outside her house — she calls the police to alert them to a possible crime.
In a series of shifting narratives, people who are connected, both directly and indirectly, with the victim — police, family, and friends — tell their personal stories leading up to that fateful night. Lou, a social worker, grapples with the departure of her live-in boyfriend. Cheryl, an artist, mourns the premature death of her sister Rain. Paulina, a single mother, struggles to trust her new partner. Phoenix, a homeless teenager, is released from a youth detention centre. Officer Scott, a Métis policeman, feels caught between two worlds as he patrols the city. Through their various perspectives a larger, more comprehensive story about lives of the residents in Winnipeg’s North End is exposed.
A powerful intergenerational family saga, The Break showcases Vermette’s abundant writing talent and positions her as an exciting new voice in literary fiction.
Richard Wagamese is one of my favourite authors. I love his musical language, vibrant descriptions, and wicked humour. A fellow English teacher says “Wagamese’s writing is soul food”. I have added Embers to my list after it was recommended by Wagamese fans over and over again as a must-read. It’s now on my summer reading list.
“Life sometimes is hard. There are challenges. There are difficulties. There is pain. As a younger man I sought to avoid them and only ever caused myself more of the same. These days I choose to face life head on–and I have become a comet. I arc across the sky of my life and the harder times are the friction that lets the worn and tired bits drop away. It’s a good way to travel; eventually I will wear away all resistance until all there is left of me is light. I can live towards that end.” –Richard Wagamese, Embers
In this carefully curated selection of everyday reflections, Richard Wagamese finds lessons in both the mundane and sublime as he muses on the universe, drawing inspiration from working in the bush–sawing and cutting and stacking wood for winter as well as the smudge ceremony to bring him closer to the Creator. Embers is perhaps Richard Wagamese’s most personal volume to date. Honest, evocative and articulate, he explores the various manifestations of grief, joy, recovery, beauty, gratitude, physicality and spirituality–concepts many find hard to express. But for Wagamese, spirituality is multifaceted. Within these pages, readers will find hard-won and concrete wisdom on how to feel the joy in the everyday things. Wagamese does not seek to be a teacher or guru, but these observations made along his own journey to become, as he says, “a spiritual bad-ass,” make inspiring reading.
A BC teacher said, “Indian Horse engages students from the first word”. This novel has inspired an award-winning film of the same name. It follows the protagonist through his residential school and hockey journey, and has a major dark twist at the end.
Saul Indian Horse has hit bottom. His last binge almost killed him, and now he’s a reluctant resident in a treatment centre for alcoholics, surrounded by people he’s sure will never understand him. But Saul wants peace, and he grudgingly comes to see that he’ll find it only through telling his story. With him, readers embark on a journey back through the life he’s led as a northern Ojibway, with all its joys and sorrows.
For years, I taught the first half of this book as a full class novel study to English 10. We’d take turns reading aloud, and shared moments of appreciation and laughter together. Once, I lost my voice so badly, two students volunteered to do all the reading for an entire week. I remember another student telling me, “This is the first book I’ve ever read that has a character in foster care, like me”.
When Garnet Raven was three years old, he was taken from his home on an Ojibway Indian reserve and placed in a series of foster homes. Having reached his mid-teens, he escapes at the first available opportunity, only to find himself cast adrift on the streets of the big city.
Having skirted the urban underbelly once too often by age 20, he finds himself thrown in jail. While there, he gets a surprise letter from his long-forgotten native family.
Yes there are three books on this list by Richard Wagamese. I meant it when I told you he’s one of my favourite authors. A coworker teaches this novel “right after Hamlet” to her English 12 class and tells me her students love it.
In One Native Life, Wagamese looks back down the road he has travelled in reclaiming his identity and talks about the things he has learned as a human being, a man and an Ojibway in his fifty-two years. Whether he’s writing about playing baseball, running away with the circus, attending a sacred bundle ceremony or meeting Pierre Trudeau, he tells these stories in a healing spirit. Through them, Wagamese celebrates the learning journey his life has been.
Free of rhetoric and anger despite the horrors he has faced, Wagamese’s prose resonates with a peace that has come from acceptance. Acceptance is an Aboriginal principle, and he has come to see that we are all neighbours here. One Native Life is his tribute to the people, the places and the events that have allowed him to stand in the sunshine and celebrate being alive.
Eden Robinson visited the Tseshaht Band Office in Port Alberni, and a good friend and I attended her evening session to listen to her share her story and read passages from her books. Like groupies, we got her to sign our copies of Monkey Beach and posed with her for a photo. Her writing is like her– deadly serious punctuated by welcome bursts of laughter. If there was an award for best smile and laugh, Eden would win it hands down.
Tragedy strikes a Native community when the Hill family’s handsome seventeen-year-old son, Jimmy, mysteriously vanishes at sea. Left behind to cope during the search-and-rescue effort is his sister, Lisamarie, a wayward teenager with a dark secret. She sets off alone in search of Jimmy through the Douglas Channel and heads for Monkey Beach—a shore famed for its sasquatch sightings. Infused by turns with darkness and humour, Monkey Beach is a spellbinding voyage into the long, cool shadows of B.C.’s Coast Mountains, blending teen culture, Haisla lore, nature spirits and human tenderness into a multi-layered story of loss and redemption
I may be getting too ambitious, but I’ve also ordered Son of a Trickster for my summer reading. This book keeps on getting suggested, again and again. It’s also the subject of the CBC series “Trickster”, which only had one season due to controversy about the series’ co-creator.
More than ten years after her Giller-shortlisted title Monkey Beach, Eden Robinson returns with a striking and precise coming-of-age novel, in which everyday teen existence meets Indigenous beliefs, crazy family dynamics and cannibalistic river otters.
Meet Jared Martin: sixteen-year-old pot cookie dealer, smoker, drinker and son with the scariest mom ever. But Jared’s the pot dealer with a heart of gold–really. Compassionate, caring, and nurturing by nature, Jared’s determined to help hold his family together–whether that means supporting his dad’s new family with the proceeds from his baking or caring for his elderly neighbours. But when it comes to being cared and loved, Jared knows he can’t rely on his family. His only source of love and support was his flatulent pit bull Baby, but she’s dead. And then there’s the talking ravens and the black outs and his grandmother’s perpetual suspicion that he is not human, but the son of a trickster.
This book was in the ‘grab bags’ at the FNESC (First Nations Education Steering Committee) Conference in Vancouver. It’s a history book presented as a captivating story, tinged with more than a little bit of King’s signature irony.
Rich with dark and light, pain and magic, The Inconvenient Indian distills the insights gleaned from Thomas King’s critical and personal meditation on what it means to be “Indian” in North America, weaving the curiously circular tale of the relationship between non-Natives and Natives in the centuries since the two first encountered each other. In the process, King refashions old stories about historical events and figures, takes a sideways look at film and pop culture, relates his own complex experiences with activism, and articulates a deep and revolutionary understanding of the cumulative effects of ever-shifting laws and treaties on Native peoples and lands.
Richard Van Camp was also first introduced to me by the FNESC (First Nations Education Steering Committee) Conference. He read from “What’s The Most Beautiful Thing You Know About Horses?”, his children’s book. The Lesser Blessed is no children’s book. It’s edgy, harsh, and brutally honest.
Internationally praised and the subject of a critically acclaimed film, Richard Van Camp’s bestselling novel about coming of age in Canada’s North has achieved the status of an Indigenous classic and it was included in CBC’s list of 100 novels that make you proud to be Canadian.
The Lesser Blessed tracks the exploits of Larry Sole, a Dogrib teenager living in the small Northern town of Fort Simmer. After losing much of his memory in a violent accident, what he loves more than anything is reading, hearing and collecting stories. With no interest in booze or sports, he floats on the edges of high school life, sustained by his love of Iron Maiden and a hopeless passion for school hottie Juliet Hope. When good-looking, trouble-seeking Johnny Beck moves into town, he shakes up Larry’s dreamy existence and leads him into a life of sex, drugs and violence, bringing him face to face with memories that he’s done his best to lose
Years ago, the First Nations Committee I was part of sent us to Saltspring Island to hear Calvin Helin speak. He’s a lawyer and firm believer in honouring the self-reliance indigenous peoples displayed for the 10,000 years before colonization. The biggest learning I got was to maintain high expentations for our indigenous students. Our lead purchased books for each of us, and we did an informal book club.
Dances with Dependency offers effective strategies to eliminate welfare dependency and help eradicate poverty among indigenous populations. Beginning with an impassioned and insightful portrait of today’s native communities, it connects the prevailing impoverishment and despair directly to a “dependency mindset” forged by welfare economics. To reframe this debilitating mindset, it advocates policy reform in conjunction with a return to native peoples’ 10,000-year tradition of self-reliance based on personal responsibility and cultural awareness.
This was Gord Downie’s parting goodbye to us. I am including him on this list, even though he was a White Settler. He was passionate about indigenous rights and was given an honorary name, Wicapi Omani, which is Lakota for “man who walks among the stars”. The Secret Path is a graphic novel, a CD, and a film, which I have showed to classes. It’s a tough story to digest, but manages to share a message of hope, inspiration and admiration for the courage of the young protagonist.
Chanie, misnamed Charlie by his teachers, was a young boy who died on October 22, 1966, walking the railroad tracks, trying to escape from the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School to return home. Chanie’s home was 400 miles away. He didn’t know that. He didn’t know where it was, nor how to find it, but, like so many kids—more than anyone will be able to imagine—he tried.
Chanie’s story is Canada’s story. We are not the country we thought we were. History will be re-written. We are all accountable. Secret Path acknowledges a dark part of Canada’s history—the long suppressed mistreatment of Indigenous children and families by the residential school system—with the hope of starting our country on a road to reconciliation. Every year as we remember Chanie Wenjack, the hope for Secret Path is that it educates all Canadians young and old on this omitted part of our history, urging our entire nation to play an active role in the preservation of Indigenous lives and culture in Canada.
Watch the film for FREE: https://secretpath.ca/
I was first introduced to Lee Maracle in university, with I Am Woman. After that, I read Ravensong. It’s been about 15 years, so I jumped at the chance to participate in an informal summer book club with BC Teachers of English Language. Several teachers recommend teaching this book to English 11-12.
Set along the Pacific Northwest Coast in the 1950s, Ravensong tells the story of an urban Native community devastated by an influenza epidemic. Stacey, a 17-year-old Native girl, struggles with the clash between white society’s values and her family’s traditional ways, knowing that her future lies somewhere in between. Celia, her sister, has visions from the past, while Raven warns of an impending catastrophe before the two cultures reconcile. In this passionate story about a young woman’s quest for answers, author Lee Maracle speaks unflinchingly of the gulf between two cultures: a gulf that Raven says must be bridged. Ravensong is a moving drama that includes elements of prophecy, mythology, cultural critique, and humour.
Featuring a preface by Lee Maracle and cover art by Métis artist Christi Belcourt, this revitalized edition is ideal for use in Literature and Gender and Women’s Studies programs.
A BC teacher asked me to include this “great, heart wrenching” novel in this list. The Round House won the National Book Award for fiction.
One of the most revered novelists of our time—a brilliant chronicler of Native-American life—Louise Erdrich returns to the territory of her bestselling, Pulitzer Prize finalist The Plague of Doves with The Round House, transporting readers to the Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota. It is an exquisitely told story of a boy on the cusp of manhood who seeks justice and understanding in the wake of a terrible crime that upends and forever transforms his family.
Riveting and suspenseful, arguably the most accessible novel to date from the creator of Love Medicine, The Beet Queen, and The Bingo Palace, Erdrich’s The Round House is a page-turning masterpiece of literary fiction—at once a powerful coming-of-age story, a mystery, and a tender, moving novel of family, history, and culture.
I had the honour of spending a week with Larry Brentro, Dr. Martin Brokenleg, and Steve Van Bockern for their Circle of Courage Convention in Victoria BC. We learned about the foundations of the Circle of Courage, and then how to apply its premises to case studies of at-risk youth. I also had the chance to take a Master’s level course, “Respecting Culture” with Dr. Brokenleg. I remember him telling us that everyone has racist thoughts, thanks to the way society has conditioned us. The important thing is observing and questioning these thoughts when we have them.
Reclaiming Youth At Risk offers educators and others access to unique strategies for reaching troubled youth. This resource explores: – The roots of discouragement in today’s youth, including destructive relationships, learned irresponsibility, and a loss of purpose. – How to create a Circle of Courage to give youth a sense of belonging, mastery, independence, and generosity. – How to mend a circle that has been broken. – How to reclaim youth who are troubled or lost.
We had this book and Massey Lecture CD in my classroom, and I’d often share excerpts with my classes. Full of insight and humour, this collection unpacks the importance (and danger) of stories to ourselves and our communities. Thomas King coined one of my favourite quotes, “The truth about stories is that’s all we are”.
“Stories are wondrous things,” award-winning author and scholar Thomas King declares in his 2003 CBC Massey Lectures. “And they are dangerous.”
Beginning with a traditional Native oral story, King weaves his way through literature and history, religion and politics, popular culture and social protest, gracefully elucidating North America’s relationship with its Native peoples.
Native culture has deep ties to storytelling, and yet no other North American culture has been the subject of more erroneous stories. The Indian of fact, as King says, bears little resemblance to the literary Indian, the dying Indian, the construct so powerfully and often destructively projected by White North America. With keen perception and wit, King illustrates that stories are the key to, and only hope for, human understanding. He compels us to listen well.
This has been one of our go-to-books for reluctant readers, it’s this and “Touching Spirit Bear”. It’s a teenaged-boy humour-filled coming of age story, and is sure to delighted students and make their teachers uncomfortable. At least we’re getting them reading, right?
Bestselling author Sherman Alexie tells the story of Junior, a budding cartoonist growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Determined to take his future into his own hands, Junior leaves his troubled school on the rez to attend an all-white farm town high school where the only other Indian is the school mascot.
Heartbreaking, funny, and beautifully written, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which is based on the author’s own experiences, coupled with poignant drawings by Ellen Forney that reflect the character’s art, chronicles the contemporary adolescence of one Native American boy as he attempts to break away from the life he was destined to live.
This screenplay is from the cult-classic film by the same name. All I need to say is “Hey Victor” and “It’s a good day to be indigenous” to get fans to nod knowingly. I taught this screenplay to English 9 for years as the drama selection. After watching the film together, we’d assign characters and re-enact the entire play out loud together. We even had students come in wigs and thick glasses to act the parts. This is a winner for reluctant readers, and also has some nice symbols, similes and metaphors to dig deeper.
Arnold rescued Thomas from a fire when he was a child. Thomas thinks of Arnold as a hero, while Arnold’s son Victor resents his father’s alcoholism, violence and abandonment of his family. Uneasy rivals and friends, Thomas and Victor spend their days killing time on a Coeur d’Alene reservation in Idaho and arguing about their cultural identities. When Arnold dies, the duo set out on a cross-country journey to Phoenix to retrieve Arnold’s ashes.
I admit, I haven’t read this book yet. I was recommended to me by a student who said this was the only novel he’s ever gotten into and that I have to read it. I have a copy of it on my nightstand and plan to crack it open this summer. The concept sounds unusual and intriguing. A Surrey Librarian said The Marrow Thieves is recommended for Grade 10+. Other BC teachers use it with grades 8 & 9.
In a futuristic world ravaged by global warming, people have lost the ability to dream, and the dreamlessness has led to widespread madness. The only people still able to dream are North America’s Indigenous people, and it is their marrow that holds the cure for the rest of the world. But getting the marrow, and dreams, means death for the unwilling donors. Driven to flight, a fifteen-year-old and his companions struggle for survival, attempt to reunite with loved ones and take refuge from the “recruiters” who seek them out to bring them to the marrow-stealing “factories.”
I’m a huge Rupi Kaur fan, and have been looking for an indigenous poetry book for myself and share with my students (many are also Rupi Kaur fans). This collection looks like it just might be it. I discovered this author on instagram, where she shares her poetry and photography.
nedí nezų (Good Medicine) explores the beautiful space that being a sensual Indigenous woman creates—not only as a partner, a fantasy, a heartbreak waiting to happen but also as an auntie, a role model, a voice that connects to others walking the same path. From the online hookup world of DMs, double taps, and secret texts to earth-shakingly erotic encounters under the northern stars to the ever-complicated relationship Indigenous women have with mainstream society, this poetry collection doesn’t shy away from depicting the gorgeous diversity in decolonized desire. Instead, Campbell creates the most intimate of spaces, where the tea is hot and a seat is waiting, surrounded by the tantalizing laughter of aunties telling stories.
These wise, jubilant poems chronicle many failed attempts at romance, with the wry humour needed to not take these heartbreaks personally, and the growth that comes from sitting in the silence of living a solo life in a world that insists everyone should be partnered up. With a knowing smile, this book side-eyes the political existence and celebrates the lived experience of an Indigenous woman falling in love and lust with those around her—but, most importantly, with herself.
nedí nezų is a smart, sensual, and scandalous collection dripping in Indigenous culture yet irresistible to anyone in thrall to the magnificent disaster that is dating, sex, and relationships.
“Monster” is a poem by Dennis Saddleman about his experiences in residential school, that he performed at the Truth and Reconciliation Hearing. A Surrey BC teacher recommends teaching it to high school classes.
Listen to the poet reading “Monster” on CBC Radio: HERE
Read “Monster” HERE
“Kinchela” is a poem by Paul Buttiegieg, about “The Stolen Generation” wrenched from their homes to attend Aboriginal Residential Schools.
Read “Kinchela” HERE
I’ve been asked to expand the upper elementary recommendations. A fellow BC teacher said “Grade 6-8 is a tricky age, as they want to read content that pushes their comfort level, yet they are often not at all prepared for it, nor are their parents. Many of the books at elementary schools are too young for them”. I’ve only taught English 10-12, so relied on my students and colleagues for recommendations.
The Brave is a Surrey Teen Reads 2021-2022 nominee. A Surrey BC teacher calls this novel “an excellent read”.
Perfect for fans of Rain Reign, this middle-grade novel The Brave is about a boy with an OCD issue and his move to a reservation to live with his biological mother.
Collin can’t help himself―he has a unique condition that finds him counting every letter spoken to him. It’s a quirk that makes him a prime target for bullies, and a continual frustration to the adults around him, including his father.
When Collin asked to leave yet another school, his dad decides to send him to live in Minnesota with the mother he’s never met. She is Ojibwe, and lives on a reservation. Collin arrives in Duluth with his loyal dog, Seven, and quickly finds his mom and his new home to be warm, welcoming, and accepting of his condition.
Collin’s quirk is matched by that of his neighbor, Orenda, a girl who lives mostly in her treehouse and believes she is turning into a butterfly. With Orenda’s help, Collin works hard to overcome his challenges. His real test comes when he must step up for his new friend and trust his new family.
“Hell’s Gate is a “great short story for grade 8. I love that it’s written by a 15 year old from BC”- Surrey BC Teacher
Author Sunshine O’Donovan’s statement: I am a member of the Nlaka’pamux, a nation of people whose lives depend on creeks, rivers and salmon. I worry about the future of the salmon, who need clean, cold water to survive and spawn. I wondered what would happen if there were no more salmon because humans had ruined the rivers and ocean. Then I learned there had been a time when the salmon could not come upstream to spawn.
Just before World War I began, a second railway was being built through the Fraser River canyon. During construction of a Canadian National rail tunnel near Hell’s Gate, the railway men blasted huge chunks of cliff face, which fell and blocked the mighty Fraser River. This was disaster for the fish and the people who consider them vital.
Maybe my story will remind people of how fragile our environment is. We should not take risks with our precious land and water. We need to take care of them for future generations. My story also shows how fragile families are, and how challenging it was for families to survive when their subsistence lives were disrupted and the children were taken away from their land and rivers.
When I wrote this story, I included the cradleboard event which I heard from my mom who heard it from her stepfather, the late Francis Joe of the Shackan Band, Nlaka’pamux Nation. The migration-to-the-lake event was told to me by my father who heard it from his uncle, the late Herbie Manuel of the Upper Nicola Band, Syilx Nation. The National Film Board documentary film, Red Run, was also inspiring.
I am grateful to all the elders who remember stories and share them with their younger relations. I am also grateful for those who work hard to keep our land and water healthy and unpolluted. I dedicate this story to my ancestors, the salmon people.
Access here : Indigenous Arts & Stories – Hell’s Gate (our-story.ca)
A friend recommended I add this book to the list as a helpful resource to introduce upper elementary students to residential schools and reconciliation. The BC Teachers of English Language Association chose this book for their official summer book club.
Canada’s relationship with its Indigenous people has suffered as a result of both the residential school system and the lack of understanding of the historical and current impact of those schools. Healing and repairing that relationship requires education, awareness and increased understanding of the legacy and the impacts still being felt by Survivors and their families. Guided by acclaimed Indigenous author Monique Gray Smith, readers will learn about the lives of Survivors and listen to allies who are putting the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission into action.
A fellow Surrey teacher said this, “Grade 7 may be on the older end of this book and series but a colleague had great success with this. It’s Waldorf 6th grade”.
Her name is Omakayas, or Little Frog, because her first step was a hop, and she lives on an island in Lake Superior. One day in 1850, Omakayas’s island is visited by a group of mysterious people. From them, she learns that the chimookomanag, or white people, want Omakayas and her people to leave their island and move farther west.
That day, Omakayas realizes that something so valuable, so important that she never knew she had it in the first place, could be in danger: Her way of life. Her home.
The Birchbark House Series is the story of one Ojibwe family’s journey through one hundred years in America. The New York Times Book Review raved about The Game of Silence: “Erdrich has created a world, fictional but real: absorbing, funny, serious and convincingly human.”
Now in its 10th anniversary, teachers and Indigenous Education Support Workers recommend this book for upper elementary, as it could be frightening to young children.
Eight-year-old Margaret Pokiak has set her sights on learning to read, even though it means leaving her village in the high Arctic. Faced with unceasing pressure, her father finally agrees to let her make the five-day journey to attend school, but he warns Margaret of the terrors of residential schools. At school Margaret soon encounters the Raven, a black-cloaked nun with a hooked nose and bony fingers that resemble claws. She immediately dislikes the strong-willed young Margaret. Intending to humiliate her, the heartless Raven gives gray stockings to all the girls — all except Margaret, who gets red ones. In an instant Margaret is the laughingstock of the entire school. In the face of such cruelty, Margaret refuses to be intimidated and bravely gets rid of the stockings. Although a sympathetic nun stands up for Margaret, in the end it is this brave young girl who gives the Raven a lesson in the power of human dignity. Complemented by archival photos from Margaret Pokiak-Fenton’s collection and striking artworks from Liz Amini-Holmes, this inspiring first-person account of a plucky girl’s determination to confront her tormentor will linger with young readers.
My son introduced me to this Dear Canada Series, after his teacher and Librarian told them about it. This series are beautiful hardcover books, with built in ribbon bookmarks. I’d say it’s appropriate for intermediate elementary classes.
Acclaimed author Ruby Slipperjack delivers a haunting novel about a 12-year-old girl’s experience at a Residential School in 1966.
Violet Pesheens is struggling to adjust to her new life at Residential School. She misses her Grandma; she has run-ins with Cree girls; at her “white” school, everyone just stares; and everything she brought has been taken from her, including her name—she is now just a number. But worst of all, she has a fear. A fear of forgetting the things she treasures most: her Anishnabe language; the names of those she knew before; and her traditional customs. A fear of forgetting who she was.
Her notebook is the one place she can record all of her worries, and heartbreaks, and memories. And maybe, just maybe there will be hope at the end of the tunnel.
Drawing from her own experiences at Residential School, Ruby Slipperjack creates a brave, yet heartbreaking heroine in Violet, and lets young readers glimpse into an all-too important chapter in our nation’s history.
A fellow BC teacher said, “The short stories in ‘Ancestor Approved’ may fit for upper elementary, as part of a bigger look at powwow culture or something along those lines. One of my children dances so these have been great (but not all are quite age appropriate for me to read to grade 1’s)”.
Edited by award-winning and bestselling author Cynthia Leitich Smith, this collection of intersecting stories by both new and veteran Native writers bursts with hope, joy, resilience, the strength of community, and Native pride. Native families from Nations across the continent gather at the Dance for Mother Earth Powwow in Ann Arbor, Michigan. In a high school gym full of color and song, people dance, sell beadwork and books, and celebrate friendship and heritage. Young protagonists will meet relatives from faraway, mysterious strangers, and sometimes one another (plus one scrappy rez dog). They are the heroes of their own stories.
Featuring stories and poems by:
Joseph Bruchac, Art Coulson, Christine Day, Eric Gansworth, Carole Lindstrom, Dawn Quigley, 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. In partnership with We Need Diverse Books.
Note: Short Stories are my favourite genre, as they can be read on one sitting and they’re easy to integrate into a unit showcasing diverse authors and perspectives. I include these stories in my classes because my students and I love them and learn from them.
I first heard Joseph Boyden at the FNESC (First Nations Education Steering Committee) Conference, where he read his short story “The Sugar Girl” which I teach to my English 12 class. It’s a consistent favourite for my students, who love the dark punch in the gut humour and strong symbolism. Students especially love the final creative project: “Choose a powerful quote from the story and create a drawing, painting or sculpture inspired by it”.
Before internationally acclaimed author Joseph Boyden penned his bestselling novel Three Day Road and his Scotiabank Giller Prize–winning novel, Through Black Spruce, he published a powerful collection of thirteen stories about modern Aboriginal life that made readers and reviewers take notice. These stories of love, loss, rage and resilience match virtuosic style with clever wit to turn stereotypes on their head and reveal the traditions and grace of our First Peoples. Readers come to know a butterfly-costumed boy fascinated by the world of professional wrestling, a young woman who falls in love with a wolf, to the leader of an all-girl Native punk band and Painted Tongue, the unforgettable character from Through Black Spruce. Though each story is told in a different and distinct voice, they are all united by their captivating vitality, nuanced perceptions and vigorous prose.
I have used most of these stories in English 9 and 10, and found they go over well with my students. Even though the stories are set south of the border, my Canadian students connect to the relatable writing style and situations.
The ten stories that make up this collection are raw, original, and fresh. Although they are all about American Indians, they are as different from one another as they are from anything you’ve read before.
A supermarket checkout line, a rowboat on a freezing lake at dawn, a drunken dance in the gym, an ice hockey game on public-access TV. These are some of the backgrounds against which ten outstanding authors have created their memorable characters. Their work — both poignant and funny, sarcastic and serious — reminds us that the American Indian story is far from over — it’s being written every day.
I taught the title story to English 11, beside Thomas King’s story of the same title. Students then had to write an essay comparing and contrasting these two stories, and reflecting on the coincidence of them having the same title.
A New York Times Notable Book and winner of Britain’s prestigious Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize, Traplines is the book that introduced the world to Canadian author Eden Robinson. In three stories and a novella, Robinson explodes the idea of family as a nurturing safe haven through a progression of domestic horrors experienced by her young, often helpless protagonists. With her mesmerizing, dark skill, the author ushers us into these worlds of violence and abuse, where family loyalty sometimes means turning a blind eye to murder, and survival itself can be viewed as an act of betrayal.
As mentioned above, the story “Traplines” was a winner with my classes, as is “Borders”, which is probably one of the best stories ever to read out loud with an English class (and reflect on the fact that the narrator is a young child).
One Good Story, That One is steeped in native oral tradition, led off by a sly creation tale, introducing the traditional native trickster coyote. Weaving the realities of native history and contemporary life through the story, King recounts a parodic version of the Garden of Eden story, slyly pulling our leg and our funnybone.
A collection that is rich with strong characters, alive with crisp dialogue and shot through with the universal truths we are all searching for, One Good Story, That One is one great read.
As I mentioned above, Joshua Whitehead is new to me. A fellow Surrey Teacher insisted I include this anthology in my list to include diverse voices. This is a bold and breathtaking anthology of queer Indigenous speculative fiction, edited by the author of Jonny Appleseed.
This exciting and groundbreaking fiction collection showcases a number of new and emerging 2SQ (Two-Spirit and queer) Indigenous writers from across Turtle Island. These visionary authors show how queer Indigenous communities can bloom and thrive through utopian narratives that detail the vivacity and strength of 2SQness throughout its plight in the maw of settler colonialism’s histories.
Here, readers will discover bioengineered AI rats, transplanted trees in space, the rise of a 2SQ resistance camp, a primer on how to survive Indigiqueerly, virtual reality applications, mother ships at sea, and the very bending of space-time continuums queered through NDN time. Love after the End demonstrates the imaginatively queer Two-Spirit futurisms we have all been dreaming of since 1492.
Contributors include Nathan Adler, Darcie Little Badger, Gabriel Castilloux Calderon, Adam Garnet Jones, Mari Kurisato, Kai Minosh Pyle, David Alexander Robertson, jaye simpson, and Nazbah Tom.
I have used the short stories in this book in my English 9-12 classes, and its a solid original collection of some of Canada’s most celebrated Indigenous writers.
Inspired by history, Our Story is a beautifully illustrated collection of original stories from some of Canada’s most celebrated Aboriginal writers. Asked to explore seminal moments in Canadian history from an Aboriginal perspective, these ten acclaimed authors have travelled through our country’s past to discover the moments that shaped our nation and its people.
Drawing on their skills as gifted storytellers and the unique perspectives their heritage affords, the contributors to this collection offer wonderfully imaginative accounts of what it’s like to participate in history. From a tale of Viking raiders to a story set during the Oka crisis, the authors tackle a wide range of issues and events, taking us into the unknown, while also bringing the familiar into sharper focus.
Our Story brings together an impressive array of voices — Inuk, Cherokee, Ojibway, Cree, and Salish to name just a few — from across the country and across the spectrum of First Nations. These are the novelists, playwrights, journalists, activists, and artists whose work is both Aboriginal and uniquely Canadian. Brought together to explore and articulate their peoples’ experience of our country’s shared history, these authors’ grace, insight, and humour help all Canadians understand the forces and experiences that have made us who we are.
The poem “Monster” by Dennis Saddleman is recommended by a Surrey high school teacher to share with classes. This poem was read by Dennis Saddleman during public testimony to Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. There could be no more succinct and powerful contribution to the TRC than this.
Listen To the CBC performance: HERE
Download a copy of the poem: HERE
I actually haven’t read this story yet, but wanted to include it as it’s highly recommended by Surrey School District’s Indigenous Education Department. I also love the cover illustration.
The story of the beautiful relationship between a little girl and her grandfather. When she asks her grandfather how to say something in his language – Cree – he admits that his language was stolen from him when he was a boy. The little girl then sets out to help her grandfather find his language again. This sensitive and warmly illustrated picture book explores the intergenerational impact of the residential school system that separated young Indigenous children from their families. The story recognizes the pain of those whose culture and language were taken from them, how that pain is passed down, and how healing can also be shared.
I actually haven’t read this story yet, but wanted to include it as it’s highly recommended by Surrey School District’s Indigenous Education Department.
When eight-year-old Irene is removed from her First Nations family to live in a residential school she is confused, frightened, and terribly homesick. She tries to remember who she is and where she came from, despite the efforts of the nuns who are in charge at the school and who tell her that she is not to use her own name but instead use the number they have assigned to her. When she goes home for summer holidays, Irene’s parents decide never to send her and her brothers away again. But where will they hide? And what will happen when her parents disobey the law? Based on the life of co-author Jenny Kay Dupuis’ grandmother, I Am Not a Number is a hugely necessary book that brings a terrible part of Canada’s history to light in a way that children can learn from and relate to.
A friend recommends this book for introducing the concept of residential schools to very young children. She said her kids “loved this one”.
When a young girl helps tend to her grandmother’s garden, she begins to notice things that make her curious. Why does her grandmother have long, braided hair and beautifully coloured clothing? Why does she speak another language and spend so much time with her family? As she asks her grandmother about these things, she is told about life in a residential school a long time ago, where all of these things were taken away. When We Were Alone is a story about a difficult time in history, and, ultimately, one of empowerment and strength. Also available in a bilingual Swampy Cree/English edition.
When We Were Alone won the 2017 Governor General’s Literary Award in the Young People’s Literature (Illustrated Books) category, and was nominated for the TD Canadian’s Children’s Literature Award.
I have used this novel as an option for silent reading, and several students have connected with it.
At six years old, Seepeetza is taken from her happy family life on Joyaska Ranch to live as a boarder at the Kalamak Indian Residential School. Life at the school is not easy, but Seepeetza still manages to find some bright spots. Always, thoughts of home make her school life bearable.
Sylvia Olsen is a White Settler, who lives on reserve and is the mom of Indigenous children– and her co-writers are indigenous. Sylvia came to our school to do a presentation and read from her books, including “Girl With A Baby” and “Yellow Line”.
No Time to Say Goodbye is a fictional account of five children sent to aboriginal boarding school, based on the recollections of a number of Tsartlip First Nations people. These unforgettable children are taken by government agents from Tsartlip Day School to live at Kuper Island Residential School. The five are isolated on the small island and life becomes regimented by the strict school routine. They experience the pain of homesickness and confusion while trying to adjust to a world completely different from their own. Their lives are no longer organized by fishing, hunting and family, but by bells, line-ups and chores. In spite of the harsh realities of the residential school, the children find adventure in escape, challenge in competition, and camaraderie with their fellow students. Sometimes sad, sometimes funny, always engrossing, No Time to Say Goodbye is a story that readers of all ages won’t soon forget.
This is a helpful, quick to read introduction to the story behind Orange Shirt Day. I have read it out loud to my high school classes.
This true story also inspired the movement of Orange Shirt Day which could become a federal statutory holiday.
When Phyllis was a little girl she was excited to go to residential school for the first time. Her Granny bought her a bright orange shirt that she loved and she wore it to school for her first day. When she arrived at school her bright orange shirt was taken away. This is both Phyllis Webstad’s true story and the story behind Orange Shirt Day which is a day for us all to reflect upon the treatment of First Nations people and the message that ‘Every Child Matters’. Adapted for ages 4-6.
This is a beautifully illustrated and presented story, as a young girl visits her favourite places and collects memories before she goes to residential school.
In just four days young Shi-shi-etko will have to leave her family and all that she knows to attend residential school.
She spends her last days at home treasuring the beauty of her world — the dancing sunlight, the tall grass, each shiny rock, the tadpoles in the creek, her grandfather’s paddle song. Her mother, father and grandmother, each in turn, share valuable teachings that they want her to remember. And so Shi-shi-etko carefully gathers her memories for safekeeping.
Richly hued illustrations complement this gently moving and poetic account of a child who finds solace all around her, even though she is on the verge of great loss — a loss that native people have endured for generations because of the residential schools system.
This book is an excellent way to introduce The Potlatch Ban– and indigenous resistance and resilience– to children or teens. I have read this book out loud to my high school classes.
In 1935, a nine-year-old boy’s family held a forbidden Potlatch in faraway Kingcome Inlet. Watl’kina slipped from his bed to bear witness. In the Big House masked figures danced by firelight to the beat of the drum. And there, he saw a figure he knew. Aboriginal elder Alfred Scow and award-winning author Andrea Spalding collaborate to tell the story, to tell the secret of the dance.
Michelle Stoney’s Colouring Book is a handy resource to have to photocopy for mindfulness colouring. The images are themed for different seasons/ holidays and are in a traditional style with a modern twist. I bought one for my classroom and another one for my son to colour in.
Urban Iskwew FREE PDF Colouring Pages are similarly handy resources for teachers and parents to have around. We love the Orange Shirt Day, “You Deserve To Feel Safe”, and “It’s OK to not be OK”.
Ysakw Yaguhanaas Designs has this colouring page honouring the memories of the 215 children whose remains were found at Kamloops Residential School.
If you’d like more ideas, check out Shared Learnings: Ingrating BC Aboriginal Content K-12. It’s a bit outdated now, but is still full of helpful tools and resources.
A new Surrey First Peoples Guide for Newcomers has been created in response to a call for accurate resources on First Peoples in Canada from an Indigenous perspective. This is a wonderful resource for newcomers to Surrey– or for those who want to find out more about local history, culture and protocols. I wish I had this resource when I was new to Surrey 5 years ago!
I have friends who subscribe to this book and gift box, and are thrilled with its concept and quality.
In 2015, shortly after the TRC released its final report, Raven Reads founder Nicole McLaren started a book club. The book club was a gathering place to not only share incredible books but to open a dialogue as well. To bring this experience to a wider audience, Raven Reads was born.
It has been designed as a safe space for you to learn about other cultures, about history and to discover beautifully crafted products made by Indigenous entrepreneurs from around the globe.
The adult box includes a mixture of Indigenous literature and giftware. Every three months they’ll send you a carefully curated box to your home. The junior box includes three books per box written or illustrated by Indigenous authors. It’s a beautiful way to explore Indigenous culture.