Nelson, S.D.

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Nelson, S.D.


Son of a U.S. Army officer. Ethnicity: "Norwegian/Lakota." Education: Minnesota State University—Moorhead, B.A. (art education), 1972.


Home—Flagstaff, AZ.


Artist and children's book writer. Worked as a middle-school art teacher in Flagstaff, AZ. Lecturer to schools on writing and Lakota culture.

Awards, Honors

Oklahoma Book Award finalist, 1998, for Spider Spins a Story, by Jill Max; Parent's Choice Gold Award; Spur Story Teller Award, Western Writers of America; American Library Association Notable Book designation; Reading Magic Award, Parenting magazine; International Reading Association Notable Book for a Global Society designation.



Gift Horse: A Lakota Story, Harry N. Abrams (New York, NY), 1999.

The Star People: A Lakota Story, Harry N. Abrams (New York, NY), 2003.

Quiet Hero: The Ira Hayes Story, Lee & Low (New York, NY), 2006.

Coyote's Christmas, Harry N. Abrams (New York, NY), 2007.


(With others) Jill Max, Spider Spins a Story: Fourteen Legends from Native America, Rising Moon (Flagstaff, AZ), 1998.

Joseph Bruchac, Crazy Horse's Vision, Lee & Low (New York, NY), 2000.

Joseph Bruchac, Jim Thorpe's Bright Path, Lee & Low (New York, NY), 2004.

Anthony F. Aveni, The First Americans: The Story of Where They Came from and Who They Became, Scholastic (New York, NY), 2005.


A member of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe of the Dakotas, artist and author S.D. Nelson grew up learning the traditional stories of his Lakota ancestors. "As a boy, my mother told me coyote stories about Iktomi, the Trickster," he recalled on his home page. His career as a children's-book illustrator and author was inspired, in part, by his mother; as Nelson explained, she "taught me at an early age to see the world with both the curious eyes of a child and the wistful eyes of an old man." Books such as Gift Horse: A Lakota Story evoke Nelson's childhood memories of summers spent with his family on the Lakota's Standing Rock Reservation, located on the Dakota prairie.

Nelson draws on the stories he learned from his mother for his first self-illustrated picture book, Gift Horse. Based on the life of his great-great-grandfather, Flying Cloud, the book follows the efforts of the Lakota warrior to reclaim his horse, Storm, after Storm and several other horses are captured by a Crow raiding party. Nelson's "colorful illustrations fill the pages with striking images of tribal life on the Great Plains," wrote Karen Hutt in a Booklist review of Gift Horse. Although a Publishers Weekly critic noted that Neson's text is spare, the reviewer added that readers "who can adjust to Nelson's quiet approach will find that the story has staying power."

Nelson retells a traditional Lakota story in The Star People, as Sister Girl and her brother find themselves caught in a prairie fire. Though they make it to safety, the siblings soon realize that they are lost. Only with the help of the Star People do they ultimately make it home. Nelson's "art enhances the text by blending the supernatural world with that of the children's reality," wrote Linda M. Kenton in School Library Journal, while Booklist contributor Gillian Engberg praised the author/illustrator's "clear, captivating language."

With Quiet Hero: The Ira Hayes story, Nelson moves from traditional story to biography, introducing readers to the Native American Marine who appears in the iconic photograph taken at the World War II battle of Iwo Jima. Portraying Hayes as a hero who never wanted to be celebrated, Nelson begins his biography with Hayes's childhood on a Pima Indian reservation. Moving into the Marine's service in the Pacific theatre through his death at age thirty-two, he parallels his text with illustrations that "obscure … the faces of the soldiers in battle, emphasizing their anonymity," according to Jayne Damron in School Library Journal. Booklist contributor GraceAnne A. DeCandido wrote that while some of Nelson's images and text seem stiff, "several spreads dynamically capture the fury of war, and the text is readable and informative."

Along with his self-illustrated works, Nelson has illustrated a number of texts by other authors. Collaborating with author Joseph Bruchac, he created Crazy Horse's Vision, a picture-book biography of famous Lakota warrior Crazy Horse. "Nelson fills the pages with both action and quiet drama," wrote Karen Hutt in Booklist.

According to a Publishers Weekly critic, the illustrator "blends contemporary and traditional elements" to create "striking illustrations," and Wendy Lukehart, writing in School Library Journal, deemed the collaboration "a fine introduction to a hero long overlooked."

Bruchac and Nelson pair up again to tell the story of Pottowatomie Olympian Jim Thorpe in Jim Thorpe's Bright Path. "Nelson switches to a less-stylized, mystical look" in this work, explained a Kirkus Reviews contributor, and Booklist critic Stephanie Nelson noted that the illustrator's "thickly painted artwork is appropriately muscular and energetic."

When not working on his books, Nelson offers seminars about children's literature and art, as well as about traditional and contemporary Lakota culture. In addition to his illustration work, which appears on book jackets, greeting cards, and CD covers, he also crafts rawhide drums and reproduces traditional beadwork.

Biographical and Critical Sources


Black Issues Book Review, September, 2000, Khafre Abif, review of Crazy Horse's Vision, p. 79.

Booklist, December 1, 1999, Karen Hutt, review of Gift Horse: A Lakota Story, p. 708; May 15, 2000, Karen Hutt, review of Crazy Horse's Vision, p. 1747; March 15, 2001, review of Crazy Horse's Vision, p. 1378; November 15, 2003, Gillian Engberg, review of The Star People: A Lakota Story, p. 602; August, 2004, Stephanie Zvirin, review of Jim Thorpe's Bright Path, p. 1938; September 15, 2006, GraceAnne A. DeCandido, review of Quiet Hero: The Ira Hayes Story, p. 59.

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, September, 2000, review of Crazy Horse's Vision, p. 9; December, 2003, Janice Del Negro, review of The Star People, p. 160; September, 2004, Elizabeth Bush, review of Jim Thorpe's Bright Path, p. 8.

Five Owls, spring, 2004, Michael Levy, review of The Star People, p. 83.

Horn Book, July, 2000, review of Crazy Horse's Vision, p. 433; September-October, 2006, Betty Carter, review of Quiet Hero, p. 608.

Kirkus Reviews, August 15, 2003, review of The Star People, p. 1076; April 1, 2004, review of Jim Thorpe's Bright Path, p. 325; August 15, 2006, review of Quiet Hero, p. 849.

Library Media Connection, April-May, 2006, Rose Kent Solomon, review of The First Americans, p. 86.

Publishers Weekly, December 6, 1999, review of Gift Horse, p. 76; May 29, 2000, review of Crazy Horse's Vision, p. 83.

Reading Teacher, November, 2005, Ally McArdle, review of Jim Thorpe's Bright Path, p. 275.

School Librarian, winter, 2003, review of The Star People, p. 201.

School Library Journal, July, 2000, Wendy Lukehart, review of Crazy Horse's Vision, p. 68; September, 2003, Linda M. Kenton, review of The Star People, p. 185; June, 2004, Liza Graybill, review of Jim Thorpe's Bright Path, p. 124; September, 2006, Jayne Damron, review of Quiet Hero, p. 194.

Voice of Youth Advocates, February, 2006, Beth Gallaway, review of The First Americans, p. 507.


Crizmac Art and Cultural Education Materials Web site, (July 5, 2007), "S.D. Nelson."

S.D. Nelson Home Page, (July 2, 2007).