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Notes From a Children's Librarian: Indigenous Junior Fiction

Great fiction picks for June. 

Our Children's Librarian columnist, Julie Booker, brings us a new view from the stacks every month.


Book Cover The Barren Grounds

The Barren Grounds, by David A. Robertson, is Book One of the Misewa Saga. Eighth-grader Morgan is in her third foster home in Winnipeg, living with her foster brother Eli. Morgan is angry at her nice new foster family for trying to connect her with her indigenous roots. In a secret attic room, Eli draws Morgan a picture, which magically comes to life. It becomes a portal to the land of Misewaw, where Man has stolen the summer birds, preventing Green Time. They join the quest, along with some talking animals, who help them understand indigenous beliefs about hunting. Along the way, Morgan heals her broken connection with her absent mom and her lost heritage. There’s a suspenseful showdown with Man, who has stolen the birds. This one is a kind of indigenous Narnia tale with messaging about the greed of the colonizer, dotted with humour. (Grades 4 to 8)


Book Cover Bernice and the Georgian Bay Gold

Bernice and the Georgian Bay Gold, by Jessica Outram, includes contemplative, descriptive writing that paints a picture of eight-year-old Bernice’s life in a lighthouse on Georgian Bay in 1914. Based on a real life Metis family with Voyageur roots, events begin with Tom Thompson’s visit. He leaves behind a sketch that Bernice believes is a map of the area, leading to gold. Throughout the book, her grandmother imparts the history of the islands, the hardships of their people, losing their land. When her grandmother has an accident, Bernice accelerates her plan to be a voyageur. In order to help family members affected by dishonoured treaties, she sets out to find the gold. On her boat in Georgian Bay, with only her two dogs, she dramatically loses a paddle, gets lost in the dark and is stranded when her boat floats away. After her rescue, her father points out the striations of gold in the rocks they live upon and wisely says: “Sometimes it’s best to appreciate things as they are, leave them where they are. We don’t always have to take something just because it’s there.” (Grades 3 to 6)


Book Cover Tapwe and the Magic Hat

In Tapwe and the Magic Hat, by Buffy Sainte-Marie, illustrated by Buffy Sainte-Marie and Michelle Alynn Clement, Tapwe stays with his kohkum (grandmother) during the summer months, where he meets Wapos, a rabbit-like trickster. Tapwe is given a magic headdress filled with live bluebirds and snakes, but as he falls further and further under Wapos’ spell, he neglects his family and friends, and ends up stealing maple sugar from a neighbour. “The creatures on the Hat had brought out the best in him and the Wapos was bringing out the worst.” Eventually the talking creatures on the hat become silent. Over the summer, Tapwe hears family stories, particularly trickster tales, experiences his first-ever visit to a powwow, sleeps in a tipi and encounters a bear. There are Cree words explained at the back. A good readaloud for Grades 1 to 3, with an independent reading level of Grade 3 to 4.


Book Cover Juliana and the Medicine Fish

Juliana and the Medicine Fish, by Jake MacDonald, is for those who like fishing. It’s also for middle-school kids whose parents are separated. Juliana doesn’t get to see her father much; it’s been a year since her parents split and she moved to downtown Winnipeg with her mom, who has Ojibway blood. It’s a very different life than the one at the fishing lodge in Kenora, where her father still lives. Juliana demands to visit him, but there’s trouble at the lodge—her dad is struggling financially with the upkeep and has invited a sponsor to host a fishing competition with big prize money. As she processes her parents’ separation, she re-familiarizes herself with the ducklings, the loons, the bugs, and Cub, an old Ojibway friend. Then she gets the idea to catch the legendary muskie under the dock, over six feet and a hundred pounds. Her research leads her to Cub’s grandfather, a famous fisher, whose Indigenous traditions help her land the big one. (Grades 4 to 6)


Book Cover Yellow Dog

Right from the start of Yellow Dog, by Miriam Korner, you’re thrown into the tension between Justin and Jeremy, with one boy daring the other to be cruel to a yellow dog. You know you’re in the hands of a good writer, with the conflicted narrator; Jeremy feels loyalty to his childhood friend, now 14, but doesn’t understand why he’s become cruel. Jeremy stumbles upon another world—a self-sufficient old man living in a cabin with no electricity and running water, with a history of dog-sledding. Despite his mother’s warnings, Jeremy keeps visiting the old man. She seems to know more than she’s letting on, much like his father’s death. As Jeremy puts together a dog sled team of strays in the community, there are some nail-biting scenes including "dog-shooting day" (to control the stray population) and the climactic scene in which Jeremy and Justin get lost with the dog sled far from home, in sub-zero temperatures. A must for kids who love outdoor adventures (and dogs) with an underlying theme of contemporary life in northern Indigenous communities and the loss of Cree culture. (Grades 4 to 6)


Book Cover Blood Brothers in Louisberg

Blood Brothers in Louisbourg, by Philip Roy, is set in 1744. The story unfolds in alternating two-character perspectives. Frenchman Jacques is forced to fight with his father in the military at Louisbourg, but he’s more of an academic, who sees beyond the division of Red Coats and Blue Coats. Two Feathers is Mi’kmaw who prays to the spirits before killing his food, speaks to the spirit of his dead mother, and is a keen observer. From his point of view in the forest, the reader sees the behaviour of the trappers and soldiers, and the "poisonous effects of alcohol on his fellow Indigenous people. As Jacques uncovers his father’s secret—an illegitimate child with an Indigenous woman—Two Feathers wonders about his unknown father. Once the reader realizes the main characters are brothers, the book is a suspenseful, inevitable climb toward two lives colliding, united by the love of a girl. A coming-of-age story that gives us a real glimpse into this time in history and helps build empathy for both sides. (Grades 6 and up)


On her first day as teacher-librarian, Julie Booker was asked by a five-year-old if that was her real name. She's felt at home in libraries since her inaugural job as a Page in the Toronto Public Library. She is the author of Up Up Up, a book of short stories published by House of Anansi Press.

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