The Birchbark House

erdrich birchbark house 300x216 The Birchbark HouseLouise Erdrich’s historical novel The Birchbark House is the first in a series, each book following a child from a different generation in an Ojibwa community.

Often, books for children contain a central character who is about the same age as the book’s readers. The Birchbark House would be a tough read for most children who are Omakayas’s age. There are beautiful descriptive passages that young readers tend to gloss over, and difficult vocabulary, including some Ojibwe words. For these reasons, it works best when read aloud to those younger grades — as Robin Smith discusses in her article.

What did you think of this book? And what about reading aloud in school? For those of you who are teachers, do you? And what books have you found that work best?

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Lolly Robinson About Lolly Robinson

Lolly Robinson is the designer and production manager for The Horn Book, Inc. She has degrees in studio art and children's literature and teaches children's literature at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education. She has served on the Caldecott and Boston Globe-Horn Book Award committees and blogs for Calling Caldecott and Lolly's Classroom on this site.

Comments

  1. Anna Weerasinghe says:

    I had never read or even heard of this book before, which is a shame – I think I would have loved to read this alongside Caddie Woodlawn in my fourth grade class! I can see why this would work better as a read aloud-book for younger kids, since the main character, Omakayas, is seven-going-on-eight in the story, while the writing is clearly meant for more mature readers. I really admired the way Omakayas was portrayed – she definitely reads as her age, but the issues she grapples with are not at all trivial: sickness, death, sibling rivalries, adoption, growing up, not to mention her burgeoning medicinal/spiritual powers. Omakayas handles all of these with a completely believable level of thought, humor and maturity and not a hint of preachiness – all of which makes her an easy character for kids to love and identify with. Another thing I loved was the musical quality of the langue. Take, for example, this stunning phrase: “thick swales of swamp grass rippled…” (6) I thought the incorporation of Ojibwa language was a thoughtful, culturally sensitive touch, although it was a bit annoying to have to check the glossary. You could, however, easily read through without translating the terms (I don’t think you would miss any key plot points).

  2. Esther (Kyungeun) Lee says:

    I really enjoyed the fluid, descriptive words in this book. I am a keen believer of read alouds in the classroom, so I wish I had read this to my students when I was still teaching. The only hesitation stems from its complexity. This would have been a great book towards the end of the day when my students’ energies are low and they are all in their relaxation modes, but I cannot imagine reading this any other time of day (morning or right after recess, or after any specialty class). Perhaps this is because I taught 13 students in a special education self-contained setting with 11 of them being energetic boys who are often difficult to engage. 4th graders in NY State have a new mandatory unit on Native Americans now, so I do see the value in pairing this book up with that social studies unit as well.

  3. Dayna Lellis says:

    I also think it would be great to supplement a social studies unit on Native Americans with this book. Reading Ojibwa terms and learning about the the traditions and daily routines of the Anishinaabe brings their culture to life. I like how it is written from the perspective of a young girl. She is at times quite mature (chores, caring for baby brother), but at other times shows her youth (playing with sister), which makes her an admirable and relatable protagonist for children. The illustrations in the book are not in color and have a sketch-like quality, which seems appropriate for the time period. I agree that this book would serve well as a read aloud since the text is dense and there are some mature themes (death) that might be better discussed with a teacher and classmates.

  4. Sarah Thompson says:

    While I agree that this book has potential as a complement to a unit on Native Americans, I was more frustrated by this book than engaged by it, so much so that I would hesitate to use it in its entirety with students. There were a few well-written, highly suspenseful and engaging segments (such as the sequence of events around the small pox infection), but by and large I found the level of detail and description to be tedious and unnecessary. While the author certainly has a gift with descriptive language, I didn’t feel the level to which it was employed was appropriate for the audience or story. Beyond this, the beginning and ending of the book felt like they could have been tacked on at the very end–there was nothing in the “body” of the story that was illuminated or complicated by the author’s decision to bookend the text in this way.

    • Corinne Fischer says:

      Sarah, I completely agree with you. I was thoroughly impressed with the descriptive language in the author used in some of the suspenseful parts, but I found the majority of the novel rather boring. I think that this book would be a great read aloud for students and it would weave into a unit on Native Americans very well. I strongly believe in this book as a read aloud. At times I wished that someone was reading this book aloud to me, having a voice to bring these characters to life is essential to engagement and understanding. If this book was given to a student to read independently, I think they would get frustrated quickly.

  5. Janice Chong says:

    This is an absolutely beautiful, sensitive read that can be used to supplement a Native American unit (to take a Native American perspective at a time in US history), as well as to enrich a Language Arts one. While the book seems to be designed to challenge the reader at times (via higher-level vocabulary, Native American terms and names, difficult emotional responses), there also seems to be enough storyline scaffolding to gently guide the reader along the read for a fully engaging, enriching experience. The imagery helps build realistic characters and setting, which immerses the reader comfortably in the Native American culture and beautifully crafts a rich historical fiction that may be best appreciated by a more mature student audience.

  6. Xinyi Qi says:

    One thing to note about this book is the illustrations embedded in the book. Except for those illustrating the plot of the story, many serve as demonstration of how Ojibwa Native Americans dress and live in their territory. Since other than telling well-structured story about a little girl and the somewhat tragic events happened in her tribe, this story also constructs a vivid picture of life and customs of Ojibwa people and this tread is consistent in the illustrations. Typically if we take a look at the illustrations on page 53, 125 and 131, the depiction is so realistic and in detail that we almost fell readers can get an accurate idea about how Ojibwa people look like.

  7. Nancy Fan says:

    Because I am familiar with Louise Erdrich’s fiction for adults, such as The Plague of Doves, I started this book with great interest in how she would modify her lush, vivid style for children. Reading it reminded me at once of the experience of reading when I was in fourth grade Sweetgrass by Jan Hudson, a book with an older protagonist yet similarly about a Native American girl’s life through smallpox. Another book that popped in mind was Lois Lensky’s Indian Captive: The Story of Mary Jemison. These remain clear in my memory because of deep impression they made in my childhood through their descriptive submersion of the reader into the life of another culture. Omakaya’s story shines with the same power. It is, however, a read-aloud book that requires preparation and background studies, such as the suggested integration with perhaps a social studies or history unit. As Xinyi noted, the illustrations help bring to life the details of the culture, and are great for maintaining children’s interest during read-alouds. What I find remarkable is that the author herself drew these. It’s fairly uncommon to find in chapter books an author-illustrator.

  8. I enjoyed reading this book and appreciated how the author subtly incorporated simple illustrations to accompany the story. The illustrations could be useful for readers unfamiliar with Native American heritage. I also appreciate her description of Omakaya’s surroundings and feel that they are appropriate considering the context of the story. I find it interesting that Erdrich touched upon serious subjects, such as death, illness, and household responsibilities. Erdrich weaves nature, adventure, and reality nicely together to create this story.

  9. Christina Grayson says:

    I appreciate this book more for the opportunities it presents than its value as a unit of children’s literature in its own right to be read independently and continuously. I suppose this stands in direct contrast to how some teachers (including Robin Smith of “Teaching New Readers to Love Books”) might think to use this, for the purpose of loving a book experience. This really surfaces the difference between how adults might experience a book and how a new reader might. For me, what kept the book bearable and somewhat interesting was the language’s imagery. Consequently, I’m drawn to consider this instructionally for the purpose of drawing students’ attention to use of language and promote visualization. A worthy goal that draws back the veil of reading magic! I can see the value, however, in the portrayal of the ordinary, day-to-day story, illuminating the narrative qualities of simply considering what happens in time passed. Personally, I agree with Sarah and found this borderline dull. But from the perspective of a child, in which every day is perspectivally more significant in the scheme of their total days, this would undoubtedly be a more purposeful exercise.

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