THE BIRCHBARK HOUSE by Louise Erdrich

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Omakayas was named after a little frog because the first step she ever took was a hop.  At seven years old, she still loves to jump around and can hardly sit still.  But she and her siblings still need to help with chores to help the family survive throughout the year.  Some chores are fun—like finding the perfect birch to build a summer birchbark house—and others are terrible—like scraping the inside of a moose hide.  Through her many activities and adventures from one summer to the next, Omakayas experiences both joy and grief and comes to understand herself and her role in the family even better.

Often when families are reading The Little House on the Prairie, parents tell me they are surprised by the racism in the books that they remember so fondly from their childhood.  The Little House books are certainly a product of their time and give insights into how homesteaders perceived American Indians.  But while young children are frequently exposed to such racist stereotypes in literature (Peter Pan being another example), they rarely encounter realistic portrayals of this period in history from the American Indian perspective.

In addition to being an excellent historical fiction novel in its own right, The Birchbark House is the perfect family read-aloud to provide a counter-perspective.  Like the Little House books, The Birchbark House focuses on family, friendships, and daily life for a young girl.  Readers get a glimpse into the Ojibwa way of life in the 1840s, as well as interactions with white traders and homesteaders from the Ojibwa perspective.  The Ojibwa are not the same nation that the Ingalls family encountered in Kansas (the Osage), so it is not a direct counter-perspective.  But the situation of the two book series is similar—both about families living in the relative wilderness and struggling to survive and get along peacefully with their “strange” neighbors—and they are around the same reading and interest level, both series being appropriate as read-alouds with young  elementary-age children.  

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