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


  • 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.


Hi Alyssa! I want to thank you for taking some day to sit down with me today and talk about your upcoming debut novel, THE GILDED GIRL, coming out on April 6, 2021 with Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Can you tell us a bit about the story, please?

Hi Kathie! Thanks for having me here! GILDED GIRL is a very loose retelling of A Little Princess set in a Gilded Age New York boarding school for magic.

In this alternate New York, the divide between the magical haves and have-nots is as black and white as the foyer tile at Miss Posterity’s Academy for Practical Magic. Twelve-year-old student Emma can afford the education that will teach her the secrets of kindling her magic, while the school’s servant girl, Izzy, is doomed to see her magic snuff out before her thirteenth birthday like the rest of the lower classes. When Emma loses her father and fortune in a tragic accident, she loses her access to magic as well. Though not natural allies, Emma and Izzy team up together to find a way to kindle their magic, despite the fiery danger that kindling presents. Oh yes, and there are talking cats that are secretly house dragons.

I have never actually read A Little Princess. Do you have special memories of reading it?

I have a very vivid memory of using the passage describing Sara Crewe’s transformation from star student to servant as a monologue for my theater class in seventh grade. The 1995 movie was also a staple at sleepovers growing up. I used to make believe I was Sara Crewe because, to me, she was the epitome of kindness and patience. It may sound silly, but it got me through a lot of boring and stressful situations as a child!

A caveat: The story has always had a special place in my heart but the original novel was written in the late 1890s and contains some of the colonialist opinions of that time. I remember having a lot of questions about that, so if you are planning to read the original with a child, I would recommend doing some research ahead of time and so you can help them unpack those attitudes and why they’re wrong.

What were the most important elements of A Little Princess that you wanted to preserve in this retelling?

In addition to some of the plot details, it was very important that I preserve Sara’s kindness and generosity in my Emma character. Her ability to stay strong in challenging situations is at the heart of the original story and I wanted to stay true to that. Initially, I tried to preserve the next-door neighbor plotline from the original, but I broke away from it when I realized that I didn’t want someone waiting to swoop in and help. When the kindling arrives, Emma and Izzy have to save their magic and themselves.  

Did having a basic structure of the story help with writing it, or did you find it challenging to follow the classic to a certain extent?

That’s a great question. I found the structure of the original novel challenging to use as a framework. To write A Little Princess, Frances Hodgson Burnett took a collection of her serialized short stories about a girls’ school and expanded them into a novel. Each chapter still feels like a short story and it doesn’t build in the same way that a modern novel does, so I frequently had to pull away from it. Also, while the original novel uses an omniscient voice to tell Sara’s story, my novel closely follows both Emma and Izzy.

This isn’t to say that people who love the original story won’t find easter eggs spread throughout. For example, I kept one of my favorite scenes in which the girls find their attic room transformed—though it happens in a very different way in my novel.

If you were a girl at Miss Posterity’s Academy for Practical Magic, which of the characters do you think you would have befriended?

I probably would have spent most of my time reading in the school library, so I think I would have become close friends with the school’s knowledgeable house dragon, Figgy Pudding. I also have a soft spot for the delightfully awkward Frances Slight. 

Did you have to do a lot of research to write a story with a historical setting, and if so, how did you go about doing that research?

Oh, yes. I love research and I read a huge stack of books about politics, architecture, education, and daily life in New York during The Gilded Age. I wanted to make the history feel as real as possible.

One of the things I found the most helpful was the “Ask a Librarian” resource on my local library website. The librarians were so knowledgeable and helped me find books and primary sources to answer my questions. When the libraries closed during the pandemic, they were able to help me track down electronic copies of the books and articles that I needed. The Tenement Museum in New York was also very helpful and I was fortunate to take a tour there in person while revising this book. They’re offering online tours at the moment which I’ve also taken and enjoyed.

Do you have another book on which you’re working right now?

I do! My second book, THE TARNISHED GARDEN, comes out April 5, 2022. It is a loose retelling of THE SECRET GARDEN (also by Frances Hodgson Burnett) and a companion novel to THE GILDED GIRL, set in the same magical New York and following a familiar character from the first book.

Ooh, I can’t wait to read it! Where can our readers go to find out more about you and your writing?

They can visit my website at I’m also on Instagram and Twitter @AlyssaBColman.

Thank you so much, Kathie! I appreciate the support that the MGBookVillage team gives to debut authors! It’s been lovely chatting with you today.

Thank you, Alyssa, and I sincerely hope The Gilded Girl finds many readers to enjoy it as I did.

Alyssa Colman is the author of THE GILDED GIRL (FSG BYFR, April 6, 2021). As a playwright, she was a winner of the 2013 ESPA new play competition at Primary Stages in New York and was a semi-finalist at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center National Playwrights Conference. She has participated as both a mentee and mentor in Author Mentor Match. Alyssa now lives in Los Angeles where she enjoys making messes in her kitchen and hiking with her family and their dog, Daisy. 

Interview with Angela Ahn re: Peter Lee’s Notes From The Field

Hi Angela! I’m so happy to be chatting with you about PETER LEE. As you know, I loved KRISTA KIM-BAP. Both of these stories are so family-oriented, with grandparents playing central roles. Would you say that family is very important to you? Do/Did you have a close-knit relationship with your grandparents?

Actually, I only met one of my grandparents once. My mother’s parents both died shortly after the Korean War, my dad’s father died before we immigrated to Canada. My grandmother visited us in Vancouver once when I was maybe 11 or 12 and I just remember being scared to death of her. She was this imposing figure and I remember not being able to understand a thing she said to me. She died a few years after that trip. I have wondered why I have included close grandparent relationships in my stories when I’ve never had them. Maybe a sense of longing? 

Peter has asthma and I loved seeing the representation, but also how he has to learn to make his illness work with his dreams. I feel like asthma and allergies are underrepresented in middle grade literature. Why inspired you to create a character with asthma? 

My daughter was great friends with a girl who had severe allergies. Her friend moved away a few years ago, but they were still in Vancouver while I was writing the early stages of this book. Her mom and I would stand around and talk about, you know mom things, and then I found out how many other health issues practically everybody in their family had. Asthma was one of the issues. But the way she talked about it and the way she overcame it, to eventually swim varsity level at university, was pretty amazing and inspiring. 

I also watched the younger son in the family. This kid with high energy and the desire to run around. And then I watched him sit down on a bench to try to catch his breath and I wondered how frustrating it must be for him to have the desire to do something like running around playing tag, and then having his body say, “Nope, not right now.” I tried to work all of that into the story. 

I just loved L.B. She’s my favorite! Throughout the story, despite being a gifted eight-year-old, she just wants to be a kid. Her parents, though, push her to do more than that. Were you worried about feeding the Asian “Tiger Mom” stereotype? Why did you want to show that aspect of their parenting?

I haven’t really ever talked about this before, but my son is gifted. He was tested by the school and district in  grade 3 and then by grade 5 moved to a district gifted class. So I actually know a lot about what a parent thinks when you have a kid with high ability. I’m living it. I am that Tiger Mom. 

However, I think that the mom in the story, just like me, has figured out that having potential is one thing, and having your child be happy is quite another thing. I approached that character, somewhat tongue in cheek, because she is so much like me. I think there’s one really crucial line in her motivation as a character–when she’s talking about forcing your kids to do things they don’t want to do as being the “very definition of being a good parent.” I think, well, for me anyway, the idea of pushing your kids to succeed and achieve is actually a way of showing love. 

I’ve actually thought a lot about this and why the idea of being a Tiger Mom is viewed as such a negative stereotype and I wonder if it’s because we never think about why the Moms are doing what they are doing. It’s actually really complicated, but one of the things nobody ever really talks about is the love and devotion that goes into being the kind of parent who will give up literally everything (financially, emotionally) so that they’re children have a chance to be something or to do something that the parent feels is in the best interest of the child. 

So while I am worried about people not seeing that there’s more to her than they might think, people are going to read characters how they want to read them, no matter how hard I try or what my original intent was, so I really can’t stress about it anymore than I have. 

Hammy is dealing with health changes, and everyone is understandably worried. I liked the realistic way the story “resolves” things. More middle grade books are tackling dementia and Alzheimer’s. Was a personal connection to that health condition for you?

No, there was no personal connection here. Just a situation that many, many families face. 

Peter loves dinosaurs and paleontology! Do you? How much research did you have to do for this aspect of the book?

Not a lot really. My kids were both really into dinosaurs for a long time, so I picked up a lot over the years. I did have to refresh my memory a bit by going through reference material to make sure I got some details right though. 

I like the way you write about Korean culture. I like that your second-generation Korean characters sometimes don’t know how to make Korean food. As someone who doesn’t speak her native language as fluently as I do English, I feel like I can relate to your characters. Why do you feel the need to reflect these realities honestly?

I am just writing what I know. It’s my reality. I really am not that knowledgeable about Korean cultural things. Having lived in Canada for over 40 years in a city with a relatively small Korean population, we just didn’t grow up doing a lot of overtly Korean things. When my sisters and I were younger, my dad tried to teach us Korean in our basement (I have nightmares about the textbook he bought us) but what he didn’t know was we didn’t even know the Korean alphabet. We all balked. Then he sent us to Korean school one weekend and, to my horror, the teacher was a WHITE guy. We never went back. 

Even for Korean holidays, my parents just didn’t make a big deal about maintaining a lot of traditions. I honestly did not even know Koreans celebrated Lunar New Year until recently, because we never did! I guess parents thought it was more important for us to try and fit in with our Canadian setting than try to hold onto the language and culture we had moved away from. But now, as an adult, I want to learn Korean, so I’m teaching myself and it’s very slow going. I wish I hadn’t been so stubborn as a kid! 

What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

Honestly, I’m quite boring. As I mentioned, I am learning Korean. 18 months ago, I couldn’t even read Hangul and now I can phonetically stumble my way through words. This past year I have finally discovered BTS, not only as a music group, but as entertainment. I have watched every single episode of their variety show Run BTS (more than once) with the goal of one day not needing the English subtitles to watch. They are absolutely hilarious. 

Which wonderful middle grade books have you read recently?

I really enjoyed The List of Things that Will Not Change by Rebecca Stead, and A Wish in the Dark by Christina Soontornvat was my favorite book of 2020. 

Are you working on anything at the moment that you can share with us?

Yes, I am editing a book right now, but not ready to say too much about it yet. It’s different than what I’ve written before, so six rewrites later, I’m still working on it. I hope it’s finally coming together. 

Thank you so much for your time, Angela!

Thank you for asking me such great questions! 

  • Interview with Afoma Umesi and Angela Ahn

Angela Ahn was born in Seoul, but her family immigrated to Canada before she could walk. Armed with a BA, BEd, and MLIS, she worked for several years as a teacher and a librarian, but lately has been working from home, taking care of her two children. When she can, she writes novels for kids. She’s lived most of her life in Vancouver, B.C., with brief stints working in Hong Kong and Toronto. Although she likes to blame her parents for her atrocious Korean language skills, she will admit that she was a reluctant learner. Angela’s proud to say that her children are bookworms, and that every member of her family has a stack of novels by their bed. She’s grateful to be able to write books where her children can see faces, just like theirs, on the front covers. Angela’s first book, Krista Kim-Bap, was published in 2018 and her second book, Peter Lee’s Notes from the Field, is out now. 

Sneak Peek: Chapters 1 and 2 of THE BEST WORST SUMMER, by Elizabeth Eulberg

Every book I’ve ever written starts with a “what if…?” question. For The Great Shelby Holmes series it was a pretty simple lightning bolt. I was watching Sherlock and thought “What if Sherlock Holmes was a nine year old girl?” The spark for my latest novel, The Best Worst Summer (coming May 4th), took a little longer to come together. I happened to read two books back to back (The Muse by Jessie Burton and Honeymoon in Paris by Jojo Moyes) that took place in two different timelines: one in which a painting was being created and another where the painting was being looked at. What were the chances? I really liked the dual timelines so I thought, hmmm, could I do that with a middle grade novel? What would be the item that could tie the two timelines together? Then I remember as a kid my school was repaving the playground and we decided to do a time capsule. Time capsule!

Next up was what year would the time capsule be from? This was all going on in the spring of 2019, where it was the 30th anniversary of a lot of pivotal moments from my childhood, namely, the release of New Kids on the Block “Hangin’ Tough” album. So yep, that pretty much did it. I was going to have a kid in the present day discover a time capsule that was buried by someone in 1989. 

That’s the loooong “what if…” that started the story of Peyton who is having THE WORST summer ever thanks to moving to a small town where she doesn’t know anybody. She has nothing to do, until she uncovers a box buried in the backyard with random items in it, including a photo of two girls from 1989, a weird plastic thing she has no idea what it is (*cough* cassette tape *cough*), and a note that says, “I’m so sorry, please forgive me.” Back in 1989, Melissa and her best friend Jessica are having THE BEST summer ever. They have the entire summer to hang out and have fun…until one girl’s family secret starts to unravel. 

The Best Worst Summer is a story of friendships–one beginning, another ending. It’s also a mystery. And it has A LOT of fun references to a simpler time with less technology, but a lot more freedom. (Who remembers making mixtapes from the radio?) I’m so excited to share the first two chapters with Middle Grade Book Village. Happy Reading! And Hang Tough. (Oh-oh-ohhhh-oh-oh, hangin’ tough!)

. . .

Elizabeth Eulberg was born and raised in Wisconsin before moving to New York City to work in the publishing industry. While she got to work with amazing authors as a publicist, she also once had to play basketball dressed in a Clifford the Big Red Dog costume. Luckily life as a full-time author is just as exciting (and sometimes embarrassing) where she gets to research the best chocolate chip cookie in New York and how to pick a lock. She is the author of novels for teens and young readers, including internationally best-selling YA novels The Lonely Hearts Club and Better Off Friends, and the acclaimed Great Shelby Holmes middle-grade series. Her newest novel, The Best Worst Summer, is being released on May 4, 2021. Elizabeth now lives in London, where she spends her free time going on long walks around her favorite city in the world and eating all of the scones. ALL OF THEM.