How to help kids learn (and unlearn) about Thanksgiving

green pattern of thanksgiving items

By Olivia Watson

As Thanksgiving approaches, let’s take stock of the history buried beneath our sentimentality and sweet potatoes—and the ways which we can help our families learn (and unlearn) the story of Thanksgiving. 

We’ve selected nine books for children and parents on how to think critically about the origin and legacy of this holiday, one that has long been misrepresented in our national storytelling and education system. How can we teach kids about family and gratitude without perpetuating harmful stereotypes? How can we center Indigenous perspectives in our conversations this time of year? Here’s a list that has something for every age group:

“We are a people who matter, yes, it’s true; now let’s show the world what people who matter can do.”

Go Show the World: A Celebration of Indigenous Heroes
By Wab Kinew, Illustrated by Joe Morse
Ages 5 – 9

Wab Kinew, a member of the Midewin, celebrates historic and modern-day Indigenous heroes in the form of a rap song—perfect for young poets and music lovers. Through captivating imagery and lyrics, Kinew’s book touches on key issues including Native American boarding schools and the anti-Dakota Pipeline access movement. An inspiring portrait of Indigenous leaders and their collective power, this picture book has something to teach us all.

“But what we are is what our ancestors did. How they survived. We are the memories we don’t remember, which live in us.”

There There
By Tommy Orange
Adult, Literary Fiction

In his debut novel, Tommy Orange traces the history of Native communities through twelve unique characters and their convergence at the Big Oakland Powwow. A citizen of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Nations of Oklahoma, Orange rejects stereotypes and offers a nuanced perspective of Native identity, experience, and cultural legacy. A must read for teens, college students, and parents looking to delve deeper into history.

“They spoke dozens of different languages. But they were united in their love for the new sport of football.” 

By Art Coulson, Illustrated by Nick Hardcastle
Ages 8 – 12

Any football fans in the house? Art Coulson, a member of the Cherokee Nation, tells the true story of Native American athlete Jim Thorpe. In 1912, the Carlisle Indian Industrial School football team competed against the West Point Cadets in a symbolic game reminiscent of an earlier battle fought on the same land. This story celebrates Thorpe’s determination and skill while educating readers about the problematic history of forced assimilation. An important book that provides additional resources in the back for curious minds.

“Dream a little, Kulu, this world now sings a most beautiful song of you.”

Sweetest Kulu
By Celina Kalluk, Illustrated by Alexandria Neonakis
Ages 0 – 3

This beautiful story by Inuit author and singer, Celina Kalluk, emphasizes traditional Inuit values of love and respect for the land and its animals. The book is a direct address from mother child, or Kulu, an Inuktitut term of endearment often given to babies and children. An early lesson in respecting the land and all who inhabit it, perfect for newborns and toddlers celebrating their first Thanksgiving. 

“Grief and hope were our anchor, holding us together.”

Where the Dead Sit Talking
By Brandon Hobson
Adult, Fiction

Author Brandon Hobson, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation Tribe of Oklahoma, explores displacement of all kinds in this powerful coming-of-age novel. The protagonist, Sequoyah, grapples with identity and belonging as a Native American in foster care. A profound read about intergenerational trauma, love, and family, this story offers an authentic portrayal of Native experience that is particularly poignant this time of year.

“It is a reminder to celebrate our blessings and reflect on struggles – daily, throughout the year, and across seasons.”

We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga
By Traci Sorrell, Illustrated by Frané Lessac
Age: 3 – 7

Traci Sorrell’s first picture book focalizes around a Cherokee expression of gratitude, “otsaliheliga.” Raised in the Cherokee Nation, Sorrell celebrates the diversity and joy of Indigenous families and communities at large through vibrant images and storytelling. This book even includes Cherokee vocabulary, translation, and pronunciation at the bottom of the page for young readers to follow along and learn.

“There were hundreds of different tribes in America. Each one had its own language, its own way of life, and its own name.”

The Very First Americans
By Cara Ashrose, Illustrated by Bryna Waldman
Ages 4 – 8

History curriculums often teach the story of Christopher Columbus sailing the ocean blue in 1492, before “discovering” America. Ashrose’s picture book challenges this narrative immediately, from the moment you read its title. This book is an acknowledgment and commemoration of the Indigenous people that inhabited America long before Columbus arrived, perfect for young readers encountering this history for the first time.

“She always wears colourful clothes. It’s like she dresses in rainbows.”

When We Were Alone
By David A. Robertson
Ages 5 – 8

David A. Robertson, a Swampy Cree from Winnipeg, Manitoba, tells the story of a young girl questioning her grandmother’s long hair, colorful clothes, and different language. Though intended for young children, this book recalls the painful history of life at residential/boarding schools that stripped Native Americans of their identities. The simple yet deeply moving dialogue between grandmother and granddaughter reinforces the importance of family, gratitude, and truth-telling on this holiday.

“Fry bread is time. It brings families together for meals and new memories.”

Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story
By Kevin Noble Maillard, Illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal
Ages 3-6

Much of Thanksgiving is spent preparing food for the people we love. This picture book for young readers, authored by Kevin Noble Maillard, a member of the Mekusukey Band of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, is all about food, family, and tradition. A story that reminds children (and us) that despite our different celebrations and traditions, family is family and home is home. Especially on November 26.

Olivia Watson is an avid reader and the creator of Lib’s Library, a bookstagram account that emphasizes intersectionality and challenges dominant narratives.

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