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The Birchbark House

birchbark

by Louise Erdrich
Hyperion Paperbacks, 1999
Middle grade fiction, Age 9 and Up
10: 0786814543/13: 978-078681454
Additional formats: Hardcover, audio
Honors: National Book Award Finalist * Jane Addams Award Honor * WILLA Award * National Cowboy Hall of Fame Western Heritage Winner

Omakayas. Oh-MAH-kay-ahs.

The shero in the Birchbark House, set on Madeline Island off Lake Superior in 1847, receives her name from an Ojibwa girl who was recorded as living on the island in nineteenth century. Author Louise Erdrich writes, “Dear Reader, when you speak this name out loud you will be honoring the life of an Ojibwa girl who lived long ago.”

Now, speak her name: Omakayas.

A member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwa, Erdrich (National Book Award winner and Pulitzer Prize Finalist) wrote The Birchbark House to retrace her family’s history. The story is told from the perspective of seven-year-old Omakayas, or little frog. Young readers will be completely absorbed by the adventures of Omakayas as she works alongside the women and babysits her little brother. As many young children do, she feels jealous of her older sibling and annoyed by her younger ones. Working side-by-side with her mother and grandmother, she experiences an ability to communicate well with animals, the earth, and her elders, all of which guide her in toward the gift of healing.

When a smallpox breakout ravishes the community, Omakayas is the only one not infected. Her talent for listening to the earth and all its creatures soon helps her care for her family, and she must use all of her power to save them.

The story unfolds in four parts—summer, fall, winter, and spring—and the narrative builds inside the rhythms and rituals of Ojibwa life. Its back matter includes an Author’s Note on Ojibwa language and a glossary and punctuation guide of Ojibwa terms, offering opportunity for continued depth and discovery of Omakayas’s world.

Many have contrasted The Birchbark House to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series. Wilder’s books carry a cultural bias embedded in the white encroachment on native land and culture as America pushed its boundaries west – a contrast worth noting. The Birchbark House testifies to the decimation and destruction that resulted, yet Erdrich most strongly evokes a feeling of connection among all people, with the earth, and to an Ojibwa girl named Omakayas. – Gigi

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Camo Girl

Camo Girl
By Kekla Magoon
Middle Grade, Ages 10 to 14, Grades 5 and up
Simon & Schuster, 2011
ISBN: 978141697804
additional formats: e-book
NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work for Youth/Teens *ALA Notable Children’s Book Nominee *Chicago Public Library’s Best of the Best *Kirkus Best Children’s Book *Maine Student Book Award Master List *Virginia Readers’ Choice Award Master List

Z and Ella are best friends. Since starting sixth grade, though, Z has been cast out by their group of friends because, while a genius, he “just comes across as weird.” When Z starts to withdraw into an imaginary world, Ella stays loyal to him, and because of that devotion the kids at school ostracize Ella, too. She also has a skin condition on her face called vitiligo, which her former friends start to ridicule.

The changes occurring in Z are scary, but Ella sees everyday how hard things are for him since his father left. Z’s mom lost their house, and the two of them are secretly living in the Walmart, where his mom works. Z’s only connection to the world, besides the library, is Ella. She is his protector and defender, and he pretends that he is hers. Ella accepts that staying loyal to Z, even as he descends deeper and deeper into his own troubled imagination, will mean she is tortured by their peers every day. She keeps a change of clothes in her locker for the days when the teasing is brutal and her clothes get ruined in the cafeteria.

While Ella loves her friend Z dearly and becomes his strong advocate, her family has struggled, too. Ella’s father passed away when she was a baby, and Grammie has moved in to help while Ella’s mom works away from home during the week. The granddaughter-grandmother relationship between Ella and Grammie is rich and tender and loving. But even this can’t make up for how badly Ella suffers at school.

Enter Bailey Jones. The new guy. A basketball star. And the only other black kid in the school besides Ella. At first, he knows nothing about the cruel socialscape that Ella and Z are trapped in. Bailey only sees that Ella is cute and funny and headstrong. As it turns out, he does know something of feeling afraid and not good enough. And he knows something of missing his father, too. As a friendship develops between Ella and Bailey, Z begins to self-destruct. Ella has to choose her course: Bailey and the popular crowd or Z, her true friend.

What I love about Camo Girl is how Kekla Magoon portrays the volatile urgency of the sixth grade social scene. The book is set in Nevada, and the harsh desert landscape of extremes is the perfect setting for a story about the extreme swings of middle school friendships. The main character, Ella, confronts big questions and big feelings. Through it all, and with her steady Grammie backing her up, Ella shows courage and willingness to take risks on behalf of her friends, her family, and herself. GA