Book Review: ANCESTOR APPROVED: INTERTRIBAL STORIES FOR KIDS, edited by Cynthia Leitich Smith

Cover art by Nicole Neidhardt.

This story collection defies one of my usual Book Talk points during Reader Advisory when recommending a story collection.  I always tell readers that story collections:

  • have the unique quality of making a reader feel satisfied after reading just one of it’s stories; readers go through the whole story arc and rollercoaster of emotions in just a few pages
  • reading stories as they catch your eye, and not necessarily in order, won’t hinder the reading experience

AND

  • there are stories that you will love and possibly some you won’t–– I won’t have to mention this last talking point when I Book Talk Ancestor Approved: Intertribal Stories for Kids, because I found something in each story that led me directly to think of my students. 

I listened to Ancestor Approved before the book release thanks to Libro.FM’s wonderful ALC Program for educators. By the time it was delivered to my doorstep I was ready to read it again with my eyes.  Very few books entangle me so that I need to reread immediately, but this story collection demanded it and here’s why:

  • Although each story stands on it’s own, author and editor, Cynthia Leitich Smith, together with SIXTEEN (16!) Native American authors weaved interconnections between many of the stories.  
  • No matter what difficulties life had thrown the main characters’ way before they came into their story in this anthology, here these children are treated with kindness, respect, and as precious family members
  • A diversity of family units are present, from a diversity of Native Nations, and as the plot of each story develops I learned something unique about each
  • The stories were fast paced and the young main characters offered a peek into the thinking and feelings behind their actions (tweens and teens are so hard to decipher!) 

What ANCESTOR APPROVED Intertribal Stories for Kids Gifts Middle Grade Readers

Editor and author Cynthia Leitich Smith together with the sixteen Native authors whose stories appear in this anthology, orchestrated a trail of crumbs that will have readers perking up at the mention of a certain Reservation dog who stars in his own story and yet seems to catch the attention of so many of the characters in the other stories, that I’m pretty sure readers will be looking for him everywhere in this book.  That Rez Dog isn’t the only character or vendor or dance that will pop up in multiple stories in this collection: readers should bring their detective skills because clues will abound, there will be a Windigo sighting to authenticate, and a crime to solve along with a certain famous Native girl detective!

All of the characters in each of the stories are on their way to participate as a dancer, a vendor, or a spectator in the annual Mother Earth Powwow in Ann Arbor, Michigan which is a common thread that ties all of the stories together and yet not all of them come from a Native Nation that has powwows as part of their cultural events.  The Mother Earth Powwow is an event that really happens annually which might inspire  readers to research and learn more about!  Heartdrum, the Native-focused imprint of Harper Collins which published the book, even created a map to facilitate visualizing how there are Native American Nations and Reservations all across the United States of America as they trace the characters’ voyage to Ann Arbor.

It is uncommon to find plots in middle grade novels where kids are seen by the adults in their family and community as individuals worthy of respect.  This respect was shown by action in this anthology: the adults in these stories not only validated by not only listening to what kids had to say but also by taking their feelings into consideration when it was time to act. Story after story middle grade readers will experience how kids are recognized for their value in helping their families succeed, and in some stories, even help some of their adult family members behave! Luksi’s story is a perfect example of this influence, he is sent to the powwow to dance but also to make sure that his uncle who was driving the bus to Ann Arbor, full of Elders from their Cherokee community, behaved!  Luksi could influence his uncle’s behavior because Luksi mattered. There are also stories that present how Native communities understand that young people will make grave mistakes and those mistakes should not define their future.  At the opposite end of the spectrum, many of the readers I serve have a grandparent, auntie, or uncle, who are instrumental in keeping their family’s every day run as smoothly as possible, these readers will find this valuable adult celebrated in many of the stories as well. 

Native American middle grade readers will revel in the new Native friends they will make through these stories, they will feel seen and their experiences validated as they read stories that feature the joy of honoring one’s Native Nation and culture.   They will feel they are not alone if they have experienced stereotyping and microaggressions like Dalton, Alan, and others share in their stories.  The difficult decision of choosing which Native Tribe to enroll in when a child’s parents are from different tribes,  or the unfair rejection by others for speaking their Native Nation’s language, like Joey in the story “Joey Looks at The Sky,” will offer Native American readers the comfort of seeing their own situations mirrored in these stories. Even more reflective will be the love of rituals, traditions, the feelings of community that events such as powwows provide and that the characters in these stories relish.   Readers from non-Native backgrounds will grow in empathy, shatter stereotypes, and find a little bit of themselves in many of the Native kids in these stories. 

Middle grade readers of all backgrounds will be able to relate to the Native kids in Ancestor Approved as they read stories that explore how shyness sometimes gets in the way of making friends, the joys and pains of having siblings, how being brave is doing something you love even if it terrifies you, and how losing a loved one requires allowing yourself to grieve in order to make peace with the loss but also to enjoy the memories of times spent together. 

An issue that, try as we might, we have not been able to eliminate from our children’s lives, bullying, is also explored in many of the stories in this anthology but I would like to share how Native author Brian Young contributed to this topic in a unique way.  The author wrote two stories that appear back to back: “SENECAVAJO: Alan’s Story” and “Squash Blossom Bracelet: Kevin’s Story.” They are paired to expose readers to both sides of a bullying situation.  Mr. Young offers readers an exploration of the roots that motivate bullying, which may not be the ones readers assume,  but also offers a case study for how misunderstanding someone’s situation and not understanding someone’s personality can create animosity between two kids who, in these paired stories, end up helping each other even before becoming friends. I truly believe that this will capture the attention of so many middle grade readers, who in some form have experienced, witnessed, or participated in bullying. 

What ANCESTOR APPROVED Intertribal Stories for Kids Gifts Educators

As I aspire to become an Anti-Bias and Anti-Racist Educator learning about Native American Nations is one of my priorities. Feeling comfortable with the language I use and presenting historical facts from the perspective of Native American Nations,  as my students and I explore Native American history and present daily life respectfully is a must and reading ANCESTOR APPROVED increased my fluency.  It also provided ideas on how to convey throughout the year how Native American Nations are not a people of the past, but are very much part of our present.  Students should be exposed to the knowledge that Native American is not just one group of people but that there are over 500 Native Nations and Ancestor Approved Intertribal Stories for Kids offers representation of multiple tribes and even exposes readers to how some of the tribes interact with one another.  As you share these stories with your students and together you learn about the different Native Tribes these authors and their main characters are from, opportunities for authentic, student-centered research are sure to arise. 

All readers need diverse books to see themselves represented and valued, to accept as a gift the differences among us and to find the life issues and events that we all have in common.  I hope that you come to cherish the gifts that the sixteen Native American authors featured in Ancestor Approved: Intertribal Stories for Kids have so generously given us by placing copies of this anthology in your home, classroom, and school libraries and that beyond that, you interact with these stories and characters.

. . .

Ro Menendez is a picture book collector and teacher-librarian in Mesquite, TX.  After thirteen years in the bilingual classroom she decided to transition to the library where she could build relationships with ALL readers on her campus. She enjoys the daily adventure of helping young readers develop their reader identity by connecting them with books that speak to their hearts and sense of humor! Ro’s favorite pastimes include reading aloud to children and recommending books to anyone who asks! She is also very passionate about developing a diverse library collection where all readers learn about themselves and those around them. You can find her on Twitter at @romenendez14.

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