For the past 14 years, I have recommended this series to every family that’s come to me asking for something to read after reading the Little House books. This year, I finally started the series myself. I am so glad I did!
The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich. HarperCollins, 1999.
In this book we are introduced to seven-year-old Omakayas, Little Frog, and her Ashinabe/Ojibwa family as they journey through the year in their village on Lake Superior. It’s a warm, loving family consisting of Omakayas’ parents, her grandmother, her too-beautiful teenage older sister Angeline, her annoying five-year-old brother Pinch, and sweet baby Neewo. Though the book copy doesn’t make any comparisons to those books, it has such a similar feel, the journey through a year with a family illustrated in soft pencil drawings, that I couldn’t help doing so. It’s set earlier than the Little House books, when there is still only minimal contact with whites – but enough that the dreaded small pox makes its way through. I remember reading a factual look at the Little House books in high school and learning that Laura left out mention of her deceased siblings. Erdrich is more honest, and even though this is very difficult, it’s important. Amazingly, despite the heartbreak, the overall feeling of the book is loving and hopeful. My son’s favorite part of the Little House books was the descriptions of the technology and the methods for making the things they needed – those kinds of things are here, too, but of course different. Descriptions of the beauty of nature are present in both, as are stories from a beloved family member – in The Birchbark House, mostly from the grandmother. Omakayas’s family is also tightly connected with the surrounding community. No matter how many times I stopped the Little House CDs to discuss the unjustly negative portrayals of the Native Americans there, me saying that the portrayal is racist and untrue doesn’t build any kind of positive portrayal in its place. Whether you want to branch out beyond the Little House books, are looking for a sensitive portrayal of a historical Ashinabe family from an Ashinabe author, or want a look at the time period that avoids the problems of the Little House books, or just want some beautiful, well-written historical fiction, this is an excellent series.
The Game of Silence by Louise Erdrich. HarperCollins, 2005.
We rejoin Omakayas and her family two years later, in a story that’s a pleasing mix of big events and observations of daily life. Omakayas is trying to decide when it will be the right time for her to undertake her dream journey, when she will spend nights alone in the woods with her face painted black, waiting for the spirits to speak to her. Maybe the spirits are trying to speak to her now – but Omakayas isn’t yet ready to listen. Word comes that their people may be forced west, towards the hostile and violent Bwaanag people, and this rumor is confirmed when a large group of starving refugees arrives by canoe from father east. Omakayas’s family adopts a baby, while her cousins take in a boy Omakayas’s age whom she names the Angry One. The Game of Silence comes as the adults get together to discuss what to do about the changes they see coming, and set out a variety of tempting prizes for the children who can stay silent the longest. Meanwhile, Angeline shocks Omakayas by deciding to go to the school run by white people in town. As in the previous book, even when outside events are difficult, the strength of family and community carry through, while Omakayas herself grows and finds her place within them.
Further books in this series are The Porcupine Year, Chickadee, and (just out this year) Makoons. While this is an excellent series, we need more! My daughter’s 2/3 class is reading The Birchbark House now, and I read them the beautiful contemporary picture book Jingle Dancer by Cynthia Leitich Smith to help balance the historical setting of the former. On my radar in the middle grade category is In the Footsteps of Crazy Horse by Joseph Marshall, recommended by both Debbie at American Indians in Children’s Literature and Brandy at Random Musings of a Bibliophile. I’d love to hear if you have any more recommendations for Native children’s books, especially fantasy.