Joseph Bruchac: A Strong, Early Voice in Indigenous Children’s Literature

by We Need Diverse Books

Bruchac-7Imagine a lake with its shimmering, glass-like top – quiet and calm. Yet just below, fish dart and snakes swim in search of food. Above, water striders glide and dragonflies flit on the smooth surface. This image is Joseph Bruchac – a picture of calm, yet teeming with incredible activity inside and around him. For over forty years, this Abenaki author’s award-winning stories about indigenous peoples have crossed all genres of children’s literature. Still as he describes his worst day as a writer, that reality almost never materialized. After a frustrating first semester in graduate school with a visiting instructor who not only gave him the only “B” he ever earned in a writing course and made him rewrite his novel several times in various voices, the teacher told Bruchac he was too lyrical in his prose and not a storyteller. Bruchac left, smashed and trashed his typewriter. Then, he built a fire in his back yard at married student housing and burnt all of his writing. Thankfully, for the world at large, Bruchac bought another typewriter and the following semester met Grace Paley, a new teacher, lifelong mentor and friend with great respect for Native cultures.

I first found Bruchac’s abundant work as an undergraduate through his 1990 ​Keepers of the Earth: Native American Stories and Environmental Activities for Children​ (with Michael J. Caduto), an ALA Best Book for Young Adults. From there, books about my own tribe demonstrated a commitment to writing accurate and authentic stories.

Bruchac Milky Way PB

​[See The First Strawberries: A Cherokee Story​ and ​The Story of the Milky Way: A Cherokee Tale (co-authored with Gayle Ross)​; early reader – ​The Trail of Tears​; and, his middle grade novel​, My Name is America: The Journal of Jesse Smoke, A Cherokee Boy​.] Bruchac finds that is one of the biggest challenges in sharing stories about indigenous people. “Don’t make things up,” he advises. “Go directly to Native people themselves. Not to books, not on-line, but to actual living people. And never expect any one member of a Native culture to know everything or accurately tell every story from her culture.” His upcoming novel, ​Talking Leaves​, on Sequoyah, creator of the Cherokee syllabary, reflects this practice as he drew on his consultations and collaborations with many Cherokee citizens both in Oklahoma and North Carolina over the years as well as submitting the manuscript to the Cherokee Nation’s language program for review and comment. The tribe previously awarded Bruchac its Prose Award; and, he credits receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writers Circle of the Americas as his best day as a writer.

In addition to continually creating and publishing “the world of stories around us,” the septuagenarian tends a large garden and teaches martial arts 5-6 days a week, cultivating a “Zen mindedness about living and writing.” He also works alongside his two sons, Jim and Jesse, who are active in bringing Native language and stories to film. Together, they created a new imprint, Bowman Books, within their Greenfield Review Press, to showcase the poetry, traditional stories and shorter fiction of Native writers in the Northeastern US. Even with his success, Bruchac still finds challenges from traditional publishing houses to consider using Native illustrators, but credits many of his editors “who have been willing to listen and glad to learn” about Native cultures in editing his work. As Bruchac considers what excites him about children’s literature, he believes it is “some of the best and most interesting writing being produced these days,” citing Louise Erdrich’s work for younger readers as one example. He is also energized by what can be done with movies, the “possibilities of the graphic novel” and “new media on-line,” thus providing a hint of all the stories Bruchac still has to share with the world.

For a complete listing of Joseph Bruchac’s wide body of work, visit and his Bowman Books imprint at To learn more about his formative years and journey as a writer and storyteller, read Michelle Parker-Rock’s kid-friendly and insightful ​Joseph Bruchac: An Author Kids Love​, Enslow Elementary, 2010. The current WNDB-Scholastic Reading Club Special Edition flyer features Bruchac’s ​The Journal of Jesse Smoke​ and ​Eagle Boy​, a contemporary middle grade novel about a Mohawk boy facing bullying and prejudice in Brooklyn.

Traci Sorell is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee nation and a writer of picture books, both fiction
and non-fiction.