I’m writing this in the Narragansett Nation, just up the street from the Woonasquatucket River that connects Providence, where the Narragansett people congregated for thousands of years before Roger Williams arrived, to the important Narragansett places in the landscape of interior RI. This being Indigenous Peoples Day, and me being me, I’m think about middle grade fantasy books by Native authors.
There are more this year than I think there have ever been in the past (which is not hard)–3! Though the number is still awfully small, it is a lot better than none (and possibly I am missing some? if so, please let me know in the comments!)
Healer of the Water Monster, by Brian Young, Diné (Navajo). (May 11th 2021, Heartdrum)
It wasn’t Nathan’s choice to spend the summer on the Navajo reservation with his grandmother, Nali. Her mobile summer home lacks many of the creature comforts he would have had if he’d spent the summer with his dad, but the thought of sharing his dad with his girlfriend was intolerable. He loves his grandma, and takes some interest in a science project growing Native corn, but it is still boring. Until it isn’t.
One night out in the desert, Nathan finds a Water Monster, a Holy Being from the Navajo Creation Story, who has been poisoned by mistreatment of the earth (parts of the Navajo reservation are radioactive today from uranium mining), and who will die without his help. Saving the Water Monster requires him to make a perilous journey to the world of the Holy Beings, full of dangers and wonders. And in the real world, his uncle Jet, a veteran with PTSD, is struggling with depression, and Nali and Nathan are determined to set him on the path of helping himself with a traditional N’dáá, or Enemy Way, ceremony.
The story fits right into the Rick Riordan model of an ordinary kid being caught up in a world of mythical beings, though in this case, as the author explains, the religion and culture are not fantasy, but part of real life. It is a vividly told story, one that will resonate powerfully with environmentalists kids, and the mix of real world and other world problems makes for great reading! It’s also a great introduction to day to day life in summer on the reservation, as well as to Navajo religion and culture, for kids who aren’t familiar with it.
Sisters of the Neversea, by Cynthia Leitich Smith, Muscogee Creek, (June, Heartdrum)
If you think Peter Pan as a character is a bit of an ass, Wendy a doormat and Tiger Lily no more than an offensive caricature, you are not alone! But now Cynthia Leitich Smith offers us a way back into the Neverland in a new imagining of the Peter Pan story, in which two stepsisters, Native American Lily and English Wendy, and the shared little brother they both adore, are trapped in Neverland, and must navigate its enchantments and dangers (not least of which is Peter Pan himself, whose egotistical, unstable rule over the island is turning into a nightmare).
Neverland is still a place of wonders, but here it’s also shown to be a place of misogyny, racism, and colonialist-infused rapaciousness. The whole business of the Lost Boys is shaken out into something much more troubling–kidnapping and Stockholm Syndrome. But it’s not at all heavy handed; it still manage to be lots of fun! And a large part of the story’s heart is the relationship between the two sisters, strained by circumstance in both the real world and Neverland, but rock solid at its core.
(The third book just came out, and I haven’t read it yet, so all I can offer is the publisher’s blurb, and a few thoughts on the first book)
The Great Bear (Misewa Saga #2), by David Alexander Robinson, Norway House Cree Nation (September 28th 2021 by Puffin Books)
The first book is a magnificent portal fantasy, and though it’s been a year since I read it, I vividly remember the cold and the hunger of the kids’ journey across the barren lands, and how the animal persons they met there taught them traditional ways to be in the world. I’m looking forward to reading their second adventure!
“Back at home after their first adventure in the Barren Grounds, Eli and Morgan each struggle with personal issues: Eli is being bullied at school, and tries to hide it from Morgan, while Morgan has to make an important decision about her birth mother. They turn to the place where they know they can learn the most, and make the journey to Misewa to visit their animal friends. This time they travel back in time and meet a young fisher that might just be their lost friend. But they discover that the village is once again in peril, and they must dig deep within themselves to find the strength to protect their beloved friends. Can they carry this strength back home to face their own challenges?”
All three of these books are eligible for the Cybils Awards, and although Sisters of the Neversea has been nominated, Healer of the Water Monster and the Great Bear are still waiting. Since I can’t nominate everything myself (only one nomination per category per person) please can 2 someones who love these books go here to the Cybils nominating page and do it?