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The Birchbark House | Class #3, 2016

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?

Lolly Robinson About Lolly Robinson

Lolly Robinson is the creative director 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.

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  1. Christina Simpson says:

    I enjoyed reading Louise Erdrich’s “The Birchbark House.” Following Omakayas’ family over the course of the seasons was not only captivating but also quite informative. Erdrich provided glimpses into the daily lives of the Ojibwa community, from how they harvest rice in the fall to how they prepare for the long winter, and did an excellent job presenting the values and traditions of the Ojibwa culture. Omakayas is quite mature, but she is still a very relatable character. Omakayas’ relationship with her younger brother, Neewo, was particularly touching, and I felt that Erdrich handled the topics of loss and healing quite well. The family’s “pet” crow, Andeg, was a fun addition to the story as well.

    While I have only volunteered, not taught, in an elementary school, I could see this book working quite well as a read aloud. As Robin Smith notes in her article, the book is certainly sad at times, but it’s great to hear that the book had such a positive impact on Smith’s students. It’s a wonderful story, and it would certainly keep students engaged!

  2. Madeline Loughridge says:

    I very much enjoyed reading this book. It was a new one to me but I definitely could see how it would be better as a class read aloud rather than having students read it independently. It could be a great book to open conversations with students about a variety of topics. Adding on to what Christina said, I think great conversations could focus on the seasons, growing, death (the circle of life), siblings, and many others. I felt that there were some things about the characters that would be very new and different for students to learn about and explore but I also agree that there are many things about Omakayas that students today can relatable to.

    I might consider reading this book aloud to first grade towards the end of the year but I think it might be better to read in 2nd or 3rd grade

  3. Iliana Gutierrez says:

    I think this story will stay with me for quite a while…One of qualities that stood out to me in The Birchbark House was the sense of waiting that seemed to permeate the story. There is the sense of the approaching seasons, of the family waiting for Deydey, of Omakayas waiting for the moment when Neewo would no longer have to stay in his cradle all the time. There were larger moments of waiting, too–like the impending arrival of the colonizers; for the smallpox to pass; of the moment when Omakayas would transition out of girlhood. At some point in the story, however, the waiting was replaced with another powerful feeling–a sense of striving. Perhaps Omakayas knew that if she waited for the depression to pass, she may never have come out of it. In that moment, it seemed to me that Omakayas had transitioned to a new stage in her life. The sense of determination and purpose that emerged is what makes Omakayas such a memorable and touching character for me.

  4. I was really split on this book. I thought the opening was really lovely getting to know Omakayas daily life and the quiet reflections on nature, but I really thought the story dragged for the first half of the book, until we got to winter and the smallpox outbreak. This was such a jarring shift that it really caught me off guard, but also drew me deeper into the story, and I raced through the second half. I really loved Omakayas relationship with nature and interactions with the bears. I think students would really find this engaging while reading, and potentially could lead to further research. I am curious about what people thought about the ending. I’ll be honest, I completely forgot about the opening prologue, but I did love how it left Omakyas with such a strong sense of self and how she fit within her family.

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