Cynthia Leitich Smith's "Reservation Dogs" Read-Alikes

The best-selling author recommends nine books by Indigenous authors for fans of the award-winning TV series about four teens on an Oklahoma tribal reservation. 

The recent TV series finale of “Reservation Dogs” closes three award-winning seasons of authentic, resonant episodes set on a modern-day rural Oklahoma rez and centered on four Native teens within their intergenerational tribal community.

After you’ve finished watching this remarkable show, reach next for these literary novels—and one nonfiction gateway book—written by Indigenous voices, for more characters that reflect a full range of emotion and authenticity—humor, mystery, intrigue, and healing. Suggestions are for middle school, high school, or both. Stories are good medicine.

Two Tribes by Emily Bowen Cohen, illus. by Emily Bowen Cohen with colors by Lark Pien. HarperCollins/Heartdrum. 2023.
Gr 5 Up–Mia lives with her Jewish mom and stepdad in Los Angeles and attends a Jewish community school. However, she feels different from her classmates and friends because she is not just Jewish. Her father is Native American, and even though she hasn’t lived with him most of her life, Mia longs to learn about that part of her heritage. Because her mom doesn’t like talking about her dad, Mia hatches a plan with her best friend to secretly visit him and his family in Oklahoma. There she attends a powwow, meets extended family, and discovers answers to many of her questions about the Muscogee Nation culture. Then Mia’s parents discover she lied to both of them about the trip, and Mia is whisked back to L.A. How will she continue to become who she really is, a member of two tribes? Every sentence in this coming-of-age story is purposeful; whether it is demonstrating how to deal with those who would mock her heritage and standing up for who she is, teaching about Jewish and Muscogee Nation culture and heritage, or bringing to light the misrepresentation of Native Americans in books and pop culture, each lesson is artfully woven into the story of a young girl learning to discover and fight for who she really is. The adults are deeply supportive and model how to accept responsibility for mistakes and apologize. All readers will walk away feeling empowered to embrace their unique backgrounds. The artwork complements the text perfectly as Cohen uses internal monologues to great visual effect. The back matter includes an author’s note explaining the use of the term “Indian” as well as a Mvskoke glossary.
VERDICT A must-purchase for young readers everywhere on how to learn about, be empowered by, and embrace one’s identity.
Reviewed by Emily Beasley, Jul 01, 2023

A Snake Falls to Earth by Darcie Little Badger. Levine Querido. 2021.
Gr 7-10–Little Badger’s sophomore effort is an atmospheric, world-straddling, dual-narrative tale laced with themes of climate change, family, and identity. Nina is a Lipan girl living in Texas, a budding documentarian working to find her voice. As she hones her videos over the years, she also works to decipher tales of her family’s history—stories full of animal people and the Reflecting World. Oli is a young cottonmouth, sent away by his mother to find his own way. Lost and beset upon by monsters, he eventually makes a home on the banks of a bottomless lake, where he befriends a frog and two coyote twins. When Oli’s frog friend and Nina’s grandmother are endangered because of climate troubles on Earth, their lives intertwine. Magic and monsters combine with internet stardom and hurricane warnings to create a wonderful fable set in modern-day Texas. Following traditional Lipan Apache storytelling structure, this is an entertaining and illuminating look at how traditions and magic can exist in the modern world. Oli and his friends are delightful to read about, while Nina’s human concerns and love for her grandmother shine.
VERDICT A modern-day fable with real-world significance, perfect for magical realism fans and fantasy lovers alike.
Reviewed by Elissa Bongiorno, Washington, DC, Nov 01, 2021

Rez Ball by Byron Graves (text) & narrated by Jesse NobessHarperAudio. Sept. 2023.
 Gr 8 Up–Tre was “not really into sports,” unlike brother Jaxon and their father who were “rez ball” superstars. After shooting up from 5’9” to 6’4” he “gave basketball a try and was surprisingly good at it,” thanks to Jaxon’s coaching. But Jaxon’s dead, and Tre’s become the next big hope to get the Warriors to the state championships. Graves’s novel could have been just another glorified sports story, but he delivers much more—the never-ending racism on and off the courts, the joy of “rez ball,” truncated futures when the season ends. Newbie Nobess, one of the National Screen Institute’s 2022 CBC New Indigenous Voices, a program for emerging creators, is a nuanced narrator, effectively ciphering multiple generations with and without the lyrical “rez accent.” He proves especially facile with injecting thrilling anticipation into the many games that jump off Graves’s pages.
VERDICT Once started, even the most reluctant readers will be hard-pressed to hit the pause button.
Reviewed by Terry Hong, Oct 01, 2023

Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley. Holt. 2021.
Gr 9 Up–This #OwnVoices novel is a character-driven crime thriller packed with Ojibwe culture and high-stakes tension with themes of identity, trust, and resilience. The journey of 18-year-old Daunis Fontaine is told in four parts overlaid by the four directions of Ojibwe medicine wheel teachings. Daunis should be focused on a fresh start at college after her uncle’s untimely death. She is sucked back into the world of ice hockey and starts slowly falling for Jamie, one of her brother’s new teammates. Soon she finds herself living two disparate lives: one as a loving daughter, niece, and granddaughter in her family and tribal community, and one as a confidential informant to the FBI as they investigate a deadly new drug. She dangerously furthers the investigation on her own after witnessing a murder, and ultimately must choose between protecting the people she loves or protecting her tribal community. Native cultural aspects, such as the central role of Elders in tribal life, the special relationship between aunts and nieces, and decentering of the individual in favor of the tribe are included, as are some darker aspects of life including drugs, violence, and sexual assault. Daunis, Jamie, and other characters are fleshed out, relatable, and believable, and Daunis’s journey to become a strong Ojibwe woman is compelling.
VERDICT A strong crime fiction addition to any library, educators will find this text useful in discussions of character growth, social justice, and Native issues.
Reviewed by Kara Stewart (Sappony), ­Literacy Coach & Reading Specialist, Mar 01, 2021

Dreaming in Indian: Contemporary Native American Voice edited by Lisa Charleyboy and Mary Beth Leatherdale. Annick Pr. 2014.
Gr 6-9–this anthology offers a range of essays about growing up Native. In four thematic sections, ‘Roots,’ ‘Battles,’ ‘Medicines,’ and ‘Dreamcatchers,’ contributors explore subjects from fashion and dance to the effects of residential schools.

If I Ever Get Out of Here by Eric Gansworth. 9 CDs. 10:20 hrs. Listening Library. 2014.
Gr 9 Up–The year is 1975. Lewis Blake, a slightly built teen from the Tuscarora Indian Reservation, is enrolled in advanced classes at high school. Lewis suffers racist stereotyping and bullying from students and some teachers. When he meets George Haddonfield, the boys find common interests in music, especially the Beatles, but Lewis is wary of befriending someone off the rez. George, likewise, is reticent because, as a military "brat," he moves frequently from base to base. Reservation life is depicted as having close family ties and social customs inaccessible to outsiders. George wants to break through, but Lewis's shame blockades their attempts at true friendship. Meanwhile, Evan Reininger, a notorious bully, pursues Lewis relentlessly, managing to evade authorities at every instance. The plot crescendos during a massive blizzard, when characters must face their ineluctable realities. Teen popularity and academics serve as a backdrop to the conflicts in this tale of barriers, identities, and trust. The author's narration is authentic, with Paul McCartney and Beatles song titles providing clever chapter headings. Gansworth manages an artful weave of social complexities representing reservation and "white" cultures with subtle humor to ease the tension. A worthy addition to fiction collections.— Robin Levin, Ft. Washakie School/Community Library, WY


Give Me Some Truth by Eric Gansworth. Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine Bks. 2018.
Seventeen-year-old Carson Mastick has lived his whole life on the reservation, while fifteen-year-old Maggi (short for Magpie) Bokoni had been living in the city since she was eight and has only recently moved back. Their alternating first-person narratives, set in 1980 on the Tuscarora Indian Nation (the "Rez"), near Niagara Falls, reveal an Indigenous culture rooted in tradition but embracing modern popular culture as well. Carson dreams of being a rock star; an upcoming Battle of the Bands, with its grand prize of a thousand dollars and a trip to New York City, would send him on his way. His best friend Lewis (protagonist of If I Ever Get Out of Here, rev. 9/13) will be the band's rhythm guitarist, with Maggi playing her water drum. The music of the Beatles, John Lennon, and Yoko Ono frames the novel, from the title (Lennon's 1971 protest song) to the names of the novel's five parts, and provides the band's intended setlist. Gansworth's book delineates abuses faced by Native Americans, including "No Indian" signs in restaurants, close surveillance at the mall, fights, prejudice at school, and, ultimately, sabotage of the group's chance to play in the Battle of the Bands. It's also an intimate look at the teens' lives, including Maggi's relationship with an older man. A rich, honest story of family and friends, of a Nation within a nation. Back matter includes a playlist and discography.
Reviewed by Christina Vortia, May 01, 2018

Hearts Unbroken by Cynthia Leitich Smith. Candlewick. 2018.
Gr 9 Up—An aspiring journalist navigates friendship, first love, and racial politics in this absorbing novel. Louise Wolfe regrets dumping her first real boyfriend via email instead of face-to-face, but his offensive remarks about Native Americans crossed a line for this proud Muscogee (Creek) teen. As senior year begins, she's focused on helping her little brother, Hughie, adjust to high school life, and on earning her desired beat on the school newspaper. Competing against and falling for Joey, a new kid with a passion for photojournalism, is an added bonus. But when Hughie finds himself at the center of a divisive community conflict centered on the casting of the school production of the Wizard of Oz, Louise struggles to balance her responsibilities as a journalist with a desire to protect her family. Louise is an immediately relatable and authentic teenage voice. Bighearted, ambitious, intelligent, she also has plenty of blind spots, particularly where her relationships are concerned. While most of the secondary characters are only lightly sketched, Louise's quirky, loving family dynamic comes through strong. Realistic profanity and age-appropriate sexual situations are depicted. The author revisits the world of Hearts Unbroken in her latest novel, Harvest House (Candlewick, Apr 2023).
VERDICT Blending teen romance with complex questions of identity, equality, and censorship, this is an excellent choice for most collections.
Reviewed by Chelsea Couillard-Smith, Hennepin County Library, MN, Oct 01, 2018

Cynthia Leitich Smith (Muscogee citizen) is a New York Timesbest-selling author. Her novel Hearts Unbrokenwon an American Indian Youth Literature Award. Her 2023 YA novel,Harvest House, an Indigenous ghost mystery, has received three starred reviews. Cynthia is the author-curator of Heartdrum, an imprint of HarperChildren’s.

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