The Classroom Bookshelf
Inside The Classroom Bookshelf

Honoring Indigenous People’s Day with Teaching Ideas for Ancestor Approved

Ancestor Approved: Intertribal Stories for Kids

Edited by Cynthia Leitich Smith 

Published by Heartdrum, an Imprint of Harper Collins Publishing, in Partnership with We Need DIverse Books 

ISBN: 978-0-06-286994-4

Grades 5-8 

Image from

Book Review

Eighteen writers, two days, one powwow = Ancestor Approved: Intertribal Stories for Kids. The collection offers middle grade readers an immersion into the contemporary lives of North American Native tweens and teens as they descend on Ann Arbor, Michigan for the annual two-day Dance for Mother Earth Powwow. As one of the first books from Heartdrum, Harper Collins’ new imprint focused on Native writers and book creators, Ancestor Approved defies conventional expectations of a short story collection by intentionally interconnecting the stories written by different authors. Characters pop in and out of one another’s stories, offering readers new perspectives on events to which they’ve already borne witness. These connections are not obvious at first. One of the earliest hints is the appearance of a little dog wearing an “Ancestor Approved” t-shirt in several stories. Soon after, the reader begins to recognize protagonists in new stories as characters from previous ones. Moments of separation and connection, risk and renewal, loss and love infuse this fascinating collection with immediacy, vibrancy, and relevance. Editor Cynthia Leitich Smith writes in her message to readers, “It’s been a joy to introduce those of you who are Native and First Nations readers to stories that hopefully feel both familiar and new. It’s been a joy to introduce those of you who are non-Native readers to them, too, connecting you with Indigenous characters and points of view.”  For Native and non-Native readers alike, Ancestor Approved centers the diverse lives of contemporary Native tweens and teens, and invites all of us to delight in the community, connection, and celebration of the powwow. 

Teaching Ideas and Invitations

Note to our Readers: These ideas are not meant to be prescriptive. Choose one. Choose more. It’s up to you. Some ideas are bigger and will take a number of days to complete. Some are shorter. You can also choose to complete one part of a teaching idea, but not the whole thing. It’s up to you!

Introducing Heartdrum. Before having your students read Ancestor Approved, play them editor and Heartdrum author-curator’s introduction to the Heartdrum imprint, inserted above and found here. What are the reasons why Smith started Heartdrum? For example, why are so many books about Native American set in the historical past instead of the present? What needs does it fill in the publishing industry? Ask your students to reflect upon their own experiences or lack thereof reading contemporary stories written by Native writers. You might want to share this 2019 School Library Journal story which compares children’s literature diversity data from 2015 and 2018, using infographics created by Sarah Park Dahlen and David Huyuk.  

“How Native Writers Talk Story.” “Native fictional stories aren’t educational texts, and their quality shouldn’t be based on how much content informs non-Native readers. Put another way: They’re not better if the Native experiences are bulked up to serve a curriculum—or thinned out so cultural content is served in bite-size chunks. Rather, that level of content should be driven by what serves story and the author’s sensibility.” Ancestor Approved editor and author Cynthia Leitich Smith, of the Muscogee-Creek Nation, and Ancestor Approved author Traci Sorell of the Cherokee Nation wrote these words in their October 2020 School Library Journal article, “How Native Writers Talk Story: Honoring Authentic Voices in Books for Young People,” If you are a non-Native teacher, read this article before sharing Ancestor Approved with your students. Use the ideas in the piece to support student discussions of stories and characters. Ask students to consider their own identities in relation to those of the characters in the various stories, and to reflect upon the points the authors make, that “[t]he kids who are most directly mirrored by a protagonist should be centered by the writer in terms of the target audience. It’s what makes the most sense in terms of character agency, desire line, voice, world building, humor, and every other element of story.” Engage students in the ways in which the stories serve as windows and mirrors of your students’ own intersectional identities. How do your students define story? 

Connecting to and/or Building Prior Knowledge. The writers in Ancestor Approved wrote from their own experiences of intertribal powwows as well as the imagined lives of their characters. If you teach in a school with a large population of Native students, they, too, will likely have varying experiences attending powwows or hearing about powwows as they read Ancestor Approved. Non-Native students may or may not have attended powwows and may or may not have prior knowledge of the dances and regalia. To introduce the modern powwow, have students listen to editor Cynthia Leitich Smith speak with Colorin’ Colorado about her choice of the powwow as the unifying piece to the stories. You may also want to read Brenda Child’s fictional Bowwow Powwow, translated into Ojibwe by Gordon Jourdain, and illustrated by Jonathan Thunder. Child and her daughter  recorded a video read aloud of the book for the Minnesota Historical Society, which is available here. Students may be interested in seeing regalia included in the “Circle of Dance” online exhibit from the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian. You might also have students explore the website for the University of Michigan’s “Dance for Mother Earth Powwow,” where Ancestor Approved is set. 

Fry Bread. In just about every short story in the book, fry bread is mentioned as a tantalizing treat. One family depicted in the story makes “The World’s Best Fry Bread.” Depending on the make-up of your classroom, and the frequency of powwows in the geographical region in which you live, your students may have more or less familiarity with fry bread. If your students want to know more, conduct a read aloud of Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story by Kevin Noble Maillard. You can find out more about the book in our Classroom Bookshelf entry. Invite students to share stories and recipes of traditional breads, baked or fried, from their cultures and communities.  

Immersive Reading in Contemporary Native Writers. Use Ancestor Approved as the launch for a broader read of contemporary Native writers for young people. Start by having students read several stories in the collection. Which story was their favorite and why? Who wrote it? Have students seek out and select a full-length novel or nonfiction book written by that author, working with your school and public library system to ensure access to print and digital books with your system. Students may choose to read books independently and/or as part of book clubs. Provide time for students to conduct book talks or make book trailers to encourage an even broader reading of contemporary Native voices throughout the school year. 

Composing Intersected Stories. One of the marvels of this collection is that the stories are intersected, not separate. Seemingly minor characters from one story are the protagonists of other stories. Map the relationships between the various characters as they meet one another in different stories. Who is related to whom? Which characters get to know one another? As you map out these connections, invite your students to identify a community event in your school, town, or city with which all of your students are familiar. Give your students the space and agency to create their own network of characters. In the “Foreword,” Smith writes that “the contributors to this anthology coordinated their efforts – via phone calls, emails, texts, and an online task board – to reflect the interconnectedness of the powwow experience.” Invite them in small groups or as class to develop a set of characters around whom they could build an intersected short story collection.

Duet Text Set: Comparing Intersected Stories. Offer your students the choice of reading either Ancestor Approved or Look Both Ways: A Tale Told in Ten Blocks by Jason Reynolds. Ancestor Approved takes place over the course of a weekend, while Look Both Ways takes place over the course of a single afternoon. Ancestor Approved features contemporary Native tweens and teens attending a powwow, while Look Both Ways focuses on Black tweens within a ten block radius from their middle school. Ancestor Approved is written by eighteen writers, Look Both Ways by just one. Each offers readers an interconnected set of stories in which we learn more about each character as we see them in new stories and situations. As students make their way through their books, offer them opportunities to compare and contrast the two collections and the ways in which the shifting points-of-view help them to see characters differently.  

Taking Risks. Throughout the various stories, we see tween protagonists taking risks. Some are trying something new, like dancing for the first time. Others are returning to past activities. Some are healing or grieving old relationships while others are establishing new ones. In each case, the characters are asked to step outside their comfort zone in some way. Have students discuss these characters across the stories, and invite students to write about times in their own lives where they have also taken risks. If students are not comfortable writing their own personal narratives, invite them to talk to the adults in their lives or in the school community about the risks that they remember taking when they were in middle school. 

Exploring the Short Story Genre in a Solar System Text Set. Offer Ancestor Approved as one of several choices of short story collections in a text set genre study of multi-author short story anthologies, including Flying Lessons, edited by Ellen Oh, Funny Girl: Funniest. Stories. Ever, edited by Betsy Bird, Guys Read: Other Worlds, edited by Jon Sciescka, Totally Middle School: Tales of Friends, Family, and Fitting In edited by Betsy Groban, and The Hero Next Door, edited by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich. Have students consider the range of stories in each collection. Beyond the titles, what “holds” the collection together? How are the protagonists similar to and different from one another? How do the stories vary in mood, conflict, tension, and/or humor? How do these stories serve as windows and mirrors for your students? As students are working their way through stories in the collections, offer the opportunity for them to begin to brainstorm, draft, and revise their own original short stories inspired by the collection they read. 

Further Explorations 

Digital Resources

Heartdrum, We Need Diverse Books 

Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Official Website 

Kirkus Interview with Cynthia Leitich Smith on Editing Ancestor Approved

“Experience America’s Largest Powwow,” National Geographic Short Film 

“‘Pandemic Powwows’ Try to Get Back to Normal,” Indian Country Today, April 2021 

How Native Writers Talk Story: Honoring Authentic Voices in Books for Young People,” Cynthia Leitich Smith and Traci Sorell, School Library Journal, October 2020

Contributor’s Websites

Joseph Bruchac, Nulhegan Abenaki Nation

Art Coulson, Cherokee

Christine Day, Upper Skagit 

Eric Gansworth, Onondaga

Carole Lindstrom, Anishinaabe/Metis 

Nicole Neidhardt, Diné 

Dawn Quigley, Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe 

Rebecca Roanhorse, Ohkay Owingeh

David A. Robertson, Norway House Cree Nation 

Andrea L. Rogers, Cherokee 

Kim Rogers, Wichita and Affiliated Tribes 

Monique Gray Smith, Cree, Lakota, and Scottish ancestry

Traci Sorell, Cherokee 

Tim Tingle, Choctaw 

Erika T. Wurth, Apache, Chickasaw, Cherokee

Brian Young, Navajo 


Bird, B., ed. (2017).  Funny Girl: Funniest.Stories.Ever. Viking

Child, B. (2018). Bowwow powwow. Ill. by J. Thunder, translated by G. Jourdain. Minnesota Historical Society Press. 

Groban, B., ed. (2018). Totally middle school: Tales of friends, family, and fitting in. Delacorte. 

Maillard, K.N. (2019). Fry bread: A Native American family story. Ill. by J. Martinez-Neil. Roaring Brook Press. 

Oh, E., ed. (2017). Flying lessons and other Stories. Crown Publishing. 

Reynolds, J. (2019). Look both ways: A tale told in ten blocks. Atheneum. 

Rhuday-Perkovich, O., ed. (2019). The hero next door. Crown. 

Sciescka, J. ed. (2013). Guys read: Other worlds. Harper Collins. 

Teaching Ideas for Other Books on Native American History/Story from The Classroom Bookshelf 

Dunbar-Ortiz, R., Mendoza, J., Reese, D. (2019). An Indigenous People’s history of the United States. Beacon Press. 

Linstrom, C. (2020). We are water protectors. Ill. by M. Goade. Roaring Brook Press. 

McManus, C.W., Sorell, T. (2019). Indian no more. Lee and Low Books. 

Sorell, T. (2021). We are still here! Native American truths everyone should know. Ill. by F. Lessac. Charlesbridge Publishers. 

Mary Ann Cappiello About Mary Ann Cappiello

Mary Ann is a professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former public school language arts and humanities teacher, she is a passionate advocate for and commentator on children’s books. Mary Ann is the co-author of Teaching with Text Sets (2013) and Teaching to Complexity (2015) and Text Sets in Action: Pathways Through Content Area Literacy (Stenhouse, 2021). She has been a guest on public radio and a consultant to public television. From 2015-2018, Mary Ann was a member of the National Council of Teachers of English's Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction (K-8) Committee, serving two years as chair.