American Indian Young Adult Fiction Inspires All Ages

Sep 5th, 2013 | By | Category: Opinion, The Inquisitive Academic, Web Exclusive
By Ryan Winn

ya-fictionThe most compelling American Indian novel published this year was not marketed to adults. Eric Gansworth’s (Onondaga) If I Ever Get Out of Here is considered Young Adult (YA) fiction—but that should not dissuade older audiences from reading it. YA fiction contains compelling narratives, sympathetic protagonists, and cathartic plot points that will resound with readers of any age group. Indigenous YA fiction, in particular, can deliver didactic messages to new generations at a time when the cacophonous noise of the over-culture blocks most other mediums. Tribal college and university (TCU) professors have the opportunity to expose students to voices that they need to hear. And right now, some of the voices that have the most to offer are found in YA fiction.

America’s youth have so many reasons not to read a book. Those reasons, however, are grounded in the widely accepted yet faulty belief that there are more engaging entertainment options for teenagers. Renowned author and book critic Lev Grossman disagrees: “There’s one thing that young adult novels rarely are, and that’s boring,” he says, in an essay for The New York Times. “They’re built to grab your attention and hold it.” YA fiction’s focus on linear storytelling is one reason that YA books like the Harry Potter and Hunger Games series are read by so many adults. In fact, Publishers Weekly notes that 55% of YA books are bought by someone who’s 18 or older, and 78% of the time they are buying them for themselves.

We’re living in a time when YA fiction has never been more important. Last year TIME magazine chose John Green’s YA novel, The Fault in Our Stars, as the best book of the year. In bestowing the honor, Grossman wrote that Green’s novel “is about teenagers who happen to have cancer, but it’s not a cancer book, because as the narrator, 16-year-old Hazel Grace, bluntly puts it, ‘cancer books suck’—The Fault in Our Stars is a love story, one of the most genuine and moving ones in recent American fiction.” Although I read the book prior to TIME selecting it, I can say that it deserved every bit of praise it received. Green’s novel is a microcosm of human life in that it is filled with love, humor, inequity, sadness, and redemption. As a father of a young child living with cancer, the book was an emotional endeavor for me. However, I anticipate that it will give my son some much-needed catharsis when he’s old enough to meet Hazel Grace himself.

American Indian authors are writing YA novels filled with stories that specifically nurture and encourage Native youth, through characters and experiences they can relate to. We’re blessed with access to an accomplished guide for our Indigenous YA consumption, and her name is Debbie Reese (Nambe Pueblo). Reese’s blog, “American Indians in Children’s Literature,” consistently promotes important American Indian authors and offers pointed arguments against problematic works that hinder the perpetuation of an accurate and healthy Indigenous epistemology. Reese is one of the most passionate, informed, and trustworthy critics in our field, and we’d all do well to bookmark her web page.

Another fantastic resource is the American Indian Library Association’s American Indian Youth Literature Awards, often given to books that help their audience solidify feelings of inclusion and positive self-image. Books by Sherman Alexie (Spokane/Coeur d’Alene), Thomas King (Cherokee), Louise Erdrich (Turtle Mountain Chippewa), and the most prolific American Indian YA author, Joseph Bruchac (Abenaki), are rightfully honored. They also recognize books that a mainstream audience may not be familiar with, such as those by Tim Tingle (Choctaw), whose latest book, How I Became a Ghost, launches a trilogy involving supernatural heroes set during the Trail of Tears.

To describe why I love Gansworth’s If I Ever Get Out of Here is to describe why I love American Indian literature—its characters’ obstacles are tribe-specific, recognizable to most Native people, and yet universally relatable for all audiences. Gansworth’s book tells the story of Lewis “Shoe” Blake as he lives and matures both on and off the Tuscarora Reservation in the late 1970s. Lewis is the Indian “brainiac” in his school. He befriends newcomer George Haddonfield, the son of an American Air Force Sergeant. Lewis is as impoverished as George is privileged, but they become best friends through discussions of life, girls, and music (especially the Beatles). Gansworth dives deep into the complex issues of maturation—deeper than most coming-of-age stories—and his young protagonists at times both avoid and deliberate issues of inequality, cultural differences, and the pitfalls of prideful secrecy. The Los Angeles Times stated that “If I Ever Get Out of Here is the sort of book that can spark all kinds of meaningful conversation.” TCU faculty can use Gansworth’s novel and other YA texts to foster discussions both within and beyond our classrooms. After all, a person is never too old to benefit from meaningful fiction.

Ryan Winn teaches English, Theater, and Communications at College of Menominee Nation, where he also serves as the chair of the Humanities Department. In the past eight years he has presented several papers, chaired a few panels, and directed and/or acted in stage readings at both national and regional conferences on the topic of American Indian theater. Similarly, he has directed 12 plays for CMN, coached their AIHEC Speech Team, and has been recognized as an American Indian College Fund Faculty Member of the Year.


American Indian Library Association. (2013). American Indian Youth Literature Award. Retrieved August 2013, from

Gansworth, E. (2013). If I ever get out of here. New York: Scholastic.

Green, J. (2012). The fault in our stars. New York: Dutton.

Grossman, L. (2012, March 28). Nothing’s wrong with strong plot and characters. The New York Times. Retrieved from

Grossman, L. (2012, December 4). Top ten fiction books. Time. Retrieved August 2013, from

MacVean, M. (2013, August 8). Not just for kids: ‘If I Ever Get Out of Here’ offers a boy’s reservations from the rez. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from,0,5532634.story

Publishers Weekly (2012, September 3). New study: 55% of YA books bought by adults. Retrieved August 2013, from

Reese, D. (2006–2013). American Indians in Children’s Literature. Retrieved from

Tingle, T. (2013). How I became a ghost. Oklahoma City, OK: The RoadRunner Press.

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in the Inquisitive Academic or any other opinion column published by the Tribal College Journal (TCJ) are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of TCJ or the American Indian Higher Education Consortium.

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