3 Native Authors On Getting Their Work To Kids Despite Book Bans
“We’ve had to fight to get our books out into the world, so you ain’t going to get them out.”
Angeline Boulley, Nasuġraq Rainey Hopson, and Carole Lindstrom are award-winning Native American authors who also happen to be friends. Each has a popular new children’s book out this year, so I got the chance to chat with this talented trio, who play an important role in the powerful Indigenous reckoning underway across domains like food, politics, and pop culture.
As an Alaska Native, I think back to my own childhood growing up in rural Minnesota thousands of miles from my Tlingit culture and wish I would have seen accurate representation in media to help me understand and embrace my heritage. In lieu of honest Indigenous portrayals, I gravitated toward books about belonging, like E.B. White’s The Trumpet of the Swan, and otherworldly tales such as Louis Sachar’s Wayside School series, where misfits were the norm.
I admit I’m envious of today’s kids, who have unprecedented access to authentic stories, such as these authors’ latest works. Lindstrom’s picture book Autumn Peltier, Water Warrior shares the story of the impressive titular environmental activist. Boulley’s Warrior Girl Unearthed offers a Native spin on Lara Croft of Tomb Raider, with a teen returning stolen tribal artifacts from museums. And Hopson’s Eagle Drums is a magical modern retelling of the Iñupiat mythological story about the important messenger feast.
Here, Angeline Boulley (Chippewa), Nasuġraq Rainey Hopson (Iñupiaq), and Carole Lindstrom (Anishinaabe/Métis) discuss what inspires their writing, why accurate representation is so vital, and how readers can best support Indigenous creators.
We’re witnessing an exciting Native renaissance right now. What does it mean to you to be part of this moment?
Nasuġraq Rainey Hopson: My goal as a writer is to become obsolete. Right now, I’m the only children’s book writer in my tribe, which is incredibly heartbreaking. I want there to be so many Iñupiat children’s book writers that everyone has their favorites. I’m cheering on these young people, because the biggest hurdle stopping us from becoming creators is our self-perception. This is just the beginning, and I look forward to becoming obsolete.
Carole Lindstrom: I don’t want you to be obsolete, Rainey. [laughs] I just want Native children to see that anything is possible. When I started out writing for young people back in 2010, I was told over and over again that my work was too niche and that no one would ever buy it. Then in 2014, [the viral hashtag] #WeNeedDiverseBooks changed the world’s view and publishers’ view. Now, we’re seeing all these books coming out that are impacting the world, and everybody wants them because everybody can resonate with them.
Angeline Boulley: Last night I spoke at an event, and they did a land acknowledgment beforehand. I followed that up by saying, “Every time you hear a land acknowledgment, please partner it with action. Read a book by an Indigenous author. Request a book from the library. Review and rate it online. Talk about it with other people.” This is how you push beyond the idea of acknowledgment to actually encourage, promote, and support Indigenous voices today.
What do you love most about being an author?
CL: Being with kids at school visits. The young people just get it and have such a sense of equity. As writers, we are in our own bubble a lot, so it can be hard to see the impact of our work. Just talking to young people gives me hope, because you see that your message is resonating and that these kids want to change the world.
NRH: I would have to agree. Kids are kids wherever you go — they’re always excited and always bored. [laughs] The best part is getting to read my book over and over again, because these children tell me how it made them feel to read it. It’s a special experience to see my book through fresh eyes.
AB: I was really disappointed to learn that Firekeeper’s Daughter had been banned by a school less than an hour away from me in a school district smack dab in the middle of a tribe’s reservation boundaries. With book bans, there’s often this boogeyman fear of children being indoctrinated with a certain ideology. But if a person is so fearful of books being used to indoctrinate, the answer isn’t freedom from books — it’s freedom to read more books.
NRH: This is not a new concept; Native Americans have been being banned for a very long time. My mother grew up in a time in Alaska when there were signs in stores that said, “No Dogs and No Eskimos.” She was part of the movement to get schools here on the North Slope. Unfortunately I grew up in an environment where trying to keep us out was normal, but across every generation, there are people who have fought against censorship and separation.
CL: It’s so frustrating that in today’s world we have these book bans based on people saying that kids are going to feel bad about themselves. Kids don’t feel bad about themselves because of books; it’s the adults who feel bad about themselves. As Native people, we’ve been dealing with tough times since colonization, yet we resist, persist, and exist. We’ve had to fight to get our books out into the world, so you ain’t going to get them out.
Why is it so important that Native youth see themselves reflected in media?
CL: As a kid, I never saw myself reflected in books. If I did see Native people in books, they were always very negative, stereotypical portrayals. These days when I go on school visits, I can see the joy Native children experience seeing someone with brown skin, brown hair, and brown eyes, perhaps wearing regalia or clothing they recognize. It’s also good for non-Native children to see us thriving as part of the world.
AB: I feel so strongly that when a child can see themselves in the pages of a book, it changes their worldview and shows them they have a place in it. It’s foundational to a child’s development to see themselves as part of the world.
NRH: I think we’re at a time and place where we can all agree that colonization had a negative impact on Native people culturally, mentally, and spiritually. Part of unwinding that trauma is including us in media. It’s also important to show that Native peoples are not a monolith. We are incredibly diverse, with more than 570 tribes in the United States, and there are brilliant untapped stories out there.
What made you want to write for children?
NRH: For me, it was completely defined by what I consumed as a child, which is all fantasy and science fiction. There were not a lot of Native books available to me as a kid, so I gravitated toward stories about the dragon-riding girl and humans encountering alien colonies, because that felt similar to my life in a weird way.
CL: We Are Water Protectors actually started out as a young adult novel, because there was so much to talk about that was way too deep for very young children. Then I realized the story needed to be told [to kids] sooner, which is why it was changed into a picture book.
AB: I was a voracious reader as a child, and it was as a teenager that I first read a story featuring a Native main character. The representation fed into the idea of pan-Indianism and played up the mysticism, which left me feeling less satisfied at the end of the story. Also, throughout my career in Indian education, I worked with a lot of teens, so that’s really the audience I like to write for.
What were some of your favorite books growing up?
NRH: When I was younger, I just didn’t identify at all with books like Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie. The first series I read in just a few days was Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern, where they fought alien threats in the sky with dragon fire. The book Two Old Women by Velma Wallis is what prompted me to start writing, because here was this Alaska Native woman taking oral stories and writing them down. I still read it once or twice a year and gift it to everyone I know.
CL: Adding to what Rainey said about the Little House books, I was born in the 1960s, so those were what I grew up on in Nebraska. My home life wasn’t really great because my father was abusive, so I loved the series’ strong family unit. But then I saw Native characters being portrayed as wild savages, and I could not reconcile that as a child. Charlotte’s Web was a book that was so powerful for me in a positive way. I loved how the animals were so smart, silly, and empathetic. I still have my tattered original copy.
AB: I loved mystery thrillers with a dark, psychological edge to them. I was certainly reading older than my age, like Lois Duncan, Stephen King, and, I’m embarrassed to say, V.C. Andrews. There was this thrill to reading something I maybe shouldn’t have been.
An Alaska Native Tlingit tribal member, Kate Nelson is an award-winning writer and editor living in Minneapolis. She is currently the editor-in-chief of Artful Living, and has written for publications including ELLE, Esquire, Architectural Digest, Teen Vogue, Bustle, Thrillist, Saveur, Civil Eats, Andscape, and more.