Who Will Tell My Brother?

by Marlene Carvell
First sentence: ¨When I filled out the form for the test — the dreaded “you will be labeled for life test” the “colleges will want you–or not” test the “who are you? — what are you? — why are you?” test, I wrote my name.”
It´s out of print, unfortunately.
Content: There is some blatant racism, one use of the n-word, and one (off-screen) instance of violence against an animal.

Evan is a bi-racial (half Mowhawk) senior at his small-town (Upstate New York?) high school, and he’s fed up with their mascot: an exaggeration of the “generic” Native American, with feathered headdress and tomahawk, complete with war whoops and “dancing” at the pep rallies. He decides that this year he’s going to do something about it. Except his petitions fall on deaf ears: they don’t want to change “tradition”; they don’t feel it’s racist; and by the way, you have light brown hair and blue eyes, are you even Indian?

As Evan’s fight goes on over the years, this book gives readers an extended look into not just white privilege, but also White Arrogance. White people, at least the white people in this book, not just refuse to listen to a minority, they assume they Know Better just because they’re white. (In other words: white people are the worst!)

I was a bit skeptical about Carvell writing this story, since she’s white, but since it’s loosely biographical (written in verse, which is why I’m not entirely sure of some of the details) based on her son, I’m going to give her a pass. She didn’t come up with a huge white savior ending; the school didn’t change their policy, though there was some protests by other seniors at graduation. It felt real and honest, which I appreciated.

Indian Shoes

by Cynthia Leitich Smith
First sentence: “Ray and Grampa Halfmoon traipsed down the cracked sidewalk of a steel and stone city.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there! (So, this says a release date of 2021. The book is currently out of print — I bought a used copy — but I guess they’re bringing it back?)
Content: It’s a series of short episodic chapters, with illustrations. If we had this, it would be in the beginning chapter book (grades 1-2) section of the bookstore.

This is a series of short stories — well, episodes really — featuring Ray, a member of the Seminole and Cherokee tribes, as he grows up in Chicago with his Grampa. His parents died in a crash (I think) when Ray was very young, and he and his Grampa can’t afford to go to back Oklahoma very often. There’s not a lot to the, Ray buys moccasins for his Grampa (well, he trades his shoes for them), they go to a wedding (in which there are mishaps), they celebrate Christmas alone, Ray gets a bad haircut (and then dyes his hair to match his little league team colors), and they finally go home to Oklahoma and go fishing.

Even with is simplistic nature (it’s definitely written for younger kids), it’s a good portrait of one Native life. It’s a good reminder that Native peoples aren’t all the same, that they aren’t just historical figures, that they don’t all live on the reservation, and that they have lives and hopes and dreams.

I definitely need to read more of Smith’s work, too.

There There

by Tommy Orange
First sentence: “There was an Indian head, the head of an Indian, the drawing of the head of a headdressed, long-haired Indian depicted drawn by an unknown artist in 1939, broadcast until the late 1970s to American TVs everywhere after all the shows ran out.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There is violence, a rape (though I think it was just talked about) and a lot of f-bombs. It’s in the fiction section of the bookstore.

This book, in a series of short chapters, each focusing on a different character, depicts what life is like for the Native Peoples’ population in Oakland, California. It’s contemporary, but there’s also a bit of historical fiction for context, and it culminates in a huge powwow in Oakland. The overall plot is that there are some kids who, because they need the money and because it’s an easy target, decide to rob the powwow of the cash prize. But, mostly, it’s just a picture of what life is like for the remnants of the tribes that have settled in Oakland.

Most of the Native Peoples fiction I’ve read (admittedly: not a lot) has been centered on the reservation, and I think Orange wanted to remind people (read: white readers) that Native Peoples exist elsewhere too. That, and I think he felt his story — that of the Urban Native — hasn’t been told. There was a lot of inner conflict between feeling “not Indian enough” and feeling lost without a tribe or traditions to fall back on. Orange is exploring what it means to be “Indian”, and the perception (possibly foisted upon them by white culture) that you’re only “Indian” if you’re on the reservation or dressed up in traditional clothes.

I hesitate to say I “liked” this. The more accurate word would be “challenged”. I feel for the characters; their lives are not easy and the systemic racism and oppression of them isn’t helping. I appreciate Orange for exploring all the stereotypes of Native culture, and for giving readers a fuller picture of what Native life — both urban and on the reservation — is like It’s very much a “white people are terrible” book; but it’s an honest sentiment, and one that I think is important. And it’s always good to get an own-voices view of things.

So, while I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it, I did find it worthwhile to read.

Audio book: Give Me Some Truth

by Eric Gansworth
Read by the author and Brittany LeBorgne
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Or listen at Libro.fm
Content:  There is a lot of swearing, including some f-bombs, a very very awkward almost sex scene, plus some underage drinking. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore. 

Set in 1980, this follows two members of the Tuscarora Nation in Northern New York: Carson, whose sole goal is to win the Battle of the Bands and a trip to New York City, and Maggi, whose family has just moved back to the reservation and is trying to figure out where she fits in. There are other things going on: there’s a diner off the reservation called Custer’s Last Stand that is (literally) The Worst, and Carson (and his brother) are mixed up in it. There’s an incident with making turkey in home ec class. There’s Maggi’s (and Carson’s friend Lewis’s) job at the garage. There’s selling traditional beadwork outside of Niagra Falls set against Maggi’s desire to be an artist, rather than just a traditional beadworker.  

Two things: 1) white people are HORRIBLE. And 2) I almost gave this up because of the pedophile. Maggi’s involved with a 31-year-old white guy (she’s 15!) and he was giving her presents and telling her he loved her, and pressuring her to have sex with him, and yet wanted to keep her secret from everyone (“if we don’t tell, it’s not illegal”). I was (literally) screaming at the car radio because of this. But, after talking to A and C about it, I came to realize that the pedophile was part of the larger theme which was my first point. White people (even though this was set in 1980, I’m not sure much has changed) are. the. worst. 

In the end, this was a really good exploration of the way native peoples are treated, and what life on the reservation was like. And, while I thought that Brittany was a much better reader than Eric, I still enjoyed listening to the book. Oh. And finish it. It all does come out right in the end. 

Like a River Glorious

likearivergloriousby Rae Carson
First sentence: “Sunrise comes late to California.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Others in the series: Walk on Earth a Stranger
Content: There are some difficult scenes of emotional and physical abuse. The book is in the YA section (grades 6-8), but I’d let people know about the abuse before handing it to them.

Lee Westfall and her friends have made it to California, and Lee, with her “witchy” gold sense, have found them a pretty prime spot for gold hunting. Things are going well, until Lee’s awful (doesn’t even begin to describe it) uncle sends his henchmen to fetch her. They kill a couple of her friends, set fire to the camp, and basically kidnap Lee and a couple of others, including her beau, Jefferson. They end up at Lee’s uncle’s camp, which being run horribly, to say the least. He’s kidnapped Native peoples to do the work, and beats them while keeping them in squalor and nearly starving them. He’s “hired” Chinese workers, but doesn’t treat (or pay) them well at all. Lee is horrified, and doesn’t want to help this awful man, but he beats up Jefferson and her other friends in order to gain her cooperation. It’s awful, but it works. The question is: how can she survive in this situation while looking for a way to get out.

I’ll be honest: this one was slow starting. I picked it up and put it down several times, but after about 50 or so pages, it picked up considerably. So much so, that I didn’t want to put it back down. Carson doesn’t airbrush the treatment of the native peoples, and she is quietly feminist as well. Hiram (Lee’s uncle) is horrible, awful, and downright scary (I was thinking he was going to rape her at one point…) and while the ending is a bit too pat, it does wrap things up nicely.

A solid historical fantasy.

How I Became a Ghost

by Tim Tingle
First line: “Maybe you have never read a book written by a ghost before.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: This is not a happy story. This is a sad and painful story. And even though the language is suitable for ages 8 and up, the content is, well, hard. And sad. And painful. (It was difficult even for me to get through because of the subject matter.) It’s in the middle grade (3-5th grade) section of the bookstore, but I’d be careful which child to give it to.

There was a time in my life, when I was junior or senior in high school, when I would have loved this story.

Isaac is a Choctaw boy, happy growing up in the swamps of the south. That is until the Nahullos — the white people — come along, and begin forcing his people out of their homes. And that’s when Isaac begins seeing ghosts. He sees shades of how his family and friends will die (horrible, horrible deaths). He foretells his own death and becomes a ghost. (No surprise: it’s in the first sentence!)

It’s when they’re on the Trail of Tears, however, that things get intense. The soldiers kidnap a girl, and it’s up to Isaac — as a ghost — and his friend — who can morph into a panther — to rescue her. They do, and it’s quite interesting how it happens.

I mentioned that I would have loved this story when I was younger. It’s because I was fascinated by — that seems the wrong word — the Native Americans, and their genocide. I would have eaten this book up, and passed it along to everyone I could. Now, though? Now, I just felt impossibly sad. I know it’s a tale that Needs to be told, a story that so many people need to be reminded of. But call it liberal guilt, call it having children: I couldn’t stomach it. It wasn’t violent, necessarily, but it was heart-wrenching. And even though Isaac turned out to be a hero, I never could find it in my heart to be proud of him (even though I wanted to).

It’s a well-written story, and a book that needs to be out there. I’m just not sure that I’m the right reader for it.

(Just for the record: because this is a Cybils nominee, I’ve been asked to make sure y’all know this is my opinion only, and not that of the panel.)

Ghost Hawk

by Susan Cooper
ages: 11+
First sentence: “He had left his canoe in the river, tied to a branch of a low-growing cherry tree.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!

I should start with this: the woman can write. A random passage: “John went off to their allotted acre of land beyond the houses, where corn and pumpkins were growing. He did not point out to Daniel Smith that the swelling ears of corn were more at risk from night-prowling raccoon than from daytime birds.”  Or: “We gutted the deer, and tied their forelegs together and then their hind legs, and we carried them home, each one hanging by the legs form a pole carried by two strong men. It took all night and half the net day, but it was a triumphal procession, and our return was greed with cries of praise and delight.” It’s one of the things I’ve always enjoyed about Cooper’s writing: she knows how to evoke a place, and with the simplest of words, create a mood.


I knew about the inaccuracies and controversy surrounding this one before starting it. In some ways, I think it was inevitable: a book about a Wampanoag young man (especially a children’s book, it seems; was there the same sort of backlash around Caleb’s Crossing? If so, I missed it.) written by a white person is bound to create backlash. And to be fair, I understand that. But I have to admit that that’s not my primary problem with the novel. No: for me, it was because it was boring.

Cooper went into detail about the life of both Little Hawk as well as a Puritan boy, John Wakeley, and even though there were a couple of surprises (let me just say, I found out a third of the way through why it’s a SFEMG nominee), I was bored. I could care less about the characters, the story. I wanted to care. I wanted to see people like Daniel Smith and William Kelly — who were in favor of exterminating the Native Americans because they were savages (which always brought to mind the savages song from Pocahontas) — I just didn’t. It’s not because I didn’t recognize that their views were wrong. I just didn’t feel it.

And the last third? (The epilogue and post-epilogue as I think of them.) I basically skimmed them. Because once both Little Hawk and John stopped being kids, I lost interest. It’s a middle-grade book, for heaven’s sake. Have we forgotten what that means??

I wanted this to be better, just because it’s Susan Cooper. And I was disappointed that it wasn’t.

(Just for the record: because this is a Cybils nominee, I’ve been asked to make sure y’all know this is my opinion only, and not that of the panel.)