Angeline Boulley, an enrolled member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, received numerous accolades for her debut YA thriller, Firekeeper’s Daughter, including the 2022 Printz Award and the 2022 Edgar Award for Young Adult. Her follow-up, Warrior Girl Unearthed (Holt), is due out in May.
Lois Duncan’s Stranger with My Face was a watershed book for me—my first exposure to a Native American protagonist. I was a senior in high school. My worldview shifted upon seeing a Native teen as the main character, because I hadn’t realized my absence in books until then. I had mixed feelings about the actual story. Cringey elements included an Indian princess birth mother and an adoptive father who referenced his daughter’s “alien eyes.”
Representation in YA literature is about being present on the page and seeing ourselves, our families, and our communities portrayed authentically. Native authors aren’t only telling a story, we are sharing Indigenous knowledge. Each of us must decide what to leave off the page. My personal author mantra is, “I write to preserve my culture; I edit to protect it.” Here are 10 must-read books that set the bar for representing Indigenous characters authentically.
1. The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline (DCB)
My favorite YA novel of all time begins with an all-too-familiar scene: 16-year-old Frenchie is on the run, desperate to evade truancy officers (known as Recruiters) from government-operated residential schools. Dimaline’s story isn’t set in the past, however—it takes place in a chilling future close enough to feel goosepimples. Rooted in Canadian and U.S. government policies of dismantling Indigenous nations through the extraction of precious resources—children and their connection to culture and community—Frenchie’s coming-of-age story is a dystopian thriller where everyone except Indigenous peoples has lost the ability to dream.
2. Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger, illus. by Rovina Cai (Levine Querido)
Aspiring authors are cautioned not to write for the current market because vampire stories, like bell-bottom jeans, go in and out of fashion. I cry foul! I want all the vampire and vamp-adjacent stories from Indigenous YA authors—everything from Drew Hayden Taylor’s The Night Wanderer to Little Badger’s endearing speculative fiction debut. Title character Elatsoe is a Lippan Apache teen who can raise the ghosts of dead animals (including her dog, Kirby). El seeks answers when her cousin is murdered, a quest that leads to my favorite book moment—when Elatsoe is threatened by a vampire and defends herself by invoking an Indigenous land acknowledgment. #LandBack
3. My Good Man by Eric Gansworth (Levine Querido)
Brian is a 25-year-old reporter returning to the Tuscarora Indian Reservation in search of details after someone he knows has been violently attacked. Brian’s homecoming sparks recollections of the formative eras of his life and illustrates the widening chasm between his Haudenosaunee and American identities. As in Gansworth’s other sublime novels, If I Ever Get Out of Here and Give Me Some Truth, music frames his beautiful, funny, nuanced, and utterly transcendent storytelling.
4. The Summer of Bitter and Sweet by Jen Ferguson (Heartdrum)
This impressive YA debut delves into the color spectrum to describe a range of ice cream flavors, particularly those derived from the berries and plants of the main character’s Métis homeland on the Canadian prairie. Louisa’s summer job at her family’s ice cream shack is complicated by the presence of an ex-boyfriend, an ex–best friend, and her ex-con biological father. Ferguson crafts a story rich in the bitter and sweet of healing trauma. The conversation between Lou and her friend, King, about sexual identity and consent is the sweetest treat.
5. Walking in Two Worlds by Wab Kinew (Penguin Teen Canada)
“Walking in two worlds” is a common phrase in coming-of-age narratives for biracial and mixed-heritage teens. Kinew’s debut YA novel carries the theme into the virtual world of a multiplayer video game universe. Bugz is an Anishinaabe teen whose bifurcated identities could not be more different. In the real world, she is shy and struggles with her body image. In contrast, Bugz of the Floraverse is a badass legend whose every move is cheered by fans or loathed by a legion of misogynistic gamers. I so enjoyed the Indigenous knowledge embedded in the ’verse.
6. Hearts Unbroken by Cynthia Leitich Smith (Candlewick)
When her boyfriend makes disparaging remarks about Native Americans, Muscogee teen Lou dumps his insensitive ass. The budding journalist regroups quickly and focuses on her high school newspaper. When a group of parents form Parents Against Revisionist Theater to protest the racially diverse casting decisions in the school’s production of The Wizard of Oz, Lou and fellow staffer Joey cover the big story. Sparks ensue. Leitich Smith’s story about first loves, missteps, and lessons learned is a delight.
7. Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend by Erika T. Wurth (Curbside Splendor)
Wurth’s most recent novel, White Horse, is getting much-deserved praise and attention. But it’s her debut novel that has stayed with me. Teen Marguerite navigates a violent home, determined to protect her younger siblings. Her coming-of-age story is about the complicated and dangerous choices that are made when the alternatives are even worse. The first chapter is a creative-writing master class in voice.
8. Man Made Monsters by Andrea L. Rogers (Levine Querido)
This collection of horror stories spans a Cherokee family’s past, present, and future. The monsters are real: werewolves, forced relocation, intimate partner violence, and zombies. Rogers’s debut YA earned high praise from PW, Kirkus, Tommy Orange, and Stephen Graham Jones, who provided the best blurb ever: “Andrea Rogers writes like the house is on fire and her words are the only thing that can put it out.”
9. Murder on the Red River by Marcie R. Rendon (Cinco Puntos)
Technically not YA, but I would not hesitate to share Rendon’s work with teens. Renee “Cash” Blackbear is a 19-year-old Anishinaabe making her way in 1970s Fargo, N.Dak. She drives truck for local farmers and plays (wins) pool for cash. Sometimes she helps Sheriff Wheaton with murder investigations. Rendon is the most underrated author, IMHO. She writes the way Anishinaabe people see the world—crafting rich, sensory descriptions that transport the reader.
10. The Round House by Louise Erdrich (Harper)
No best-of list would be complete without my literary idol. Another “technically not YA” novel that I would not hesitate to share with teens. Thirteen-year-old Joe’s mother is sexually assaulted and won’t speak to anyone about what happened—not even to Joe’s father, a tribal judge. This coming-of-age story captures the fleeting passage from boyhood to manhood, the sense of injustice and lost innocence. As I read Erdrich’s novel, Joe and friends became as familiar to me as the boys who gathered at my home with my two sons.