The middle grade novel We Still Belong by Christine Day (Heartdrum, August 2023) celebrates Indigenous People’s Day with Wesley Wilder, a girl with Native American heritage (Upper Skagit), as she heads to school for an exciting day. She can’t wait for the school population to see her poem in the school newspaper dedicated to her heritage, and she is excited and nervous about asking her crush to go to the dance with her. Her day does not go as she hopes, especially when she finds that no one else cares about Indigenous People’s Day. In the end Wesley does find those in the community that appreciate and understand why declaring “We Still Belong” is so important to her, her family, and her community.
The glimpse into a modern Native American family is a central highlight of We Still Belong. The author is a part of the Upper Skagit Nation, so I know the portrayals are accurate. I learned about “blood quantum” laws (which suggests people can be not “Native enough” to be welcomed into the Nation) versus the concept of family culture as identity. I saw a glimpse of some of the customs, such as the powwow celebrating Indigenous People’s Day. I also learned about some of the modern-day discrimination against Native people. One major disappointment for Wesley is when her English teacher doesn’t understand her poem and criticizes it, declaring she should have compared her indigenous heritage celebration with Columbus Day.
Although Wesley’s day doesn’t go as she planned, the book ends with hope as many celebrate her poem and her heritage with her. As a story, We Still Belong left me feeling a little bit unsatisfied. It took about half the book before Wesley’s teacher rejected her poem, and so the build up felt somewhat slow and anti-climatic. As a reader, I wanted to see a bit more character development and change for Wesley and her school community, maybe seeing her world expanded beyond the one day. I also honestly did not understand what her English teacher meant by his criticism of her poem. I guess this confusion is part of the point: Wesley and her family and friends were likewise baffled.
Even so, We Still Belong is a short-and-sweet middle grade novel for a young reader. I love the focus on community, family heritage, and specifically Indigenous People’s Day. I just felt something was missing to make it a stand-out novel.
I voluntarily read and reviewed an advance review copy of this book provided by the publisher via NetGalley. All thoughts and opinions are my own.