The Birchbark House
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
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
Code Name Verity
By Elizabeth Wein
Young adult (late middle school – adult)
2013 Michael Printz Honor Book * New York Times Bestseller * YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults Top Ten * 2012 Boston Globe Book Award Honor * Booklist Books for Youth Editors’ Choice 2012 * BookPage Best Children’s Book 2012 * Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books Blue Ribbons 2012 * Chicago Public Library Best of the Best 2012 * The Horn Book Magazine’s Best Books of 2012 * Kirkus Reviews Best Books of 2012 * Library Journals Best YA Books for Adults * New York Times Book Review Notable Children’s Books of 2012 * Publishers Weekly Best Books of 2012 * School Library Journal’s Best Books of the Year 2012 * Young Adult Novels You’ll Never Outgrow * National Public Radio’s Best Books 2012 series
There’s a particular alchemy of human beings at their worst that allows us to savor the beauty of simple people turned into heroes. I’ll point to Ann Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl and Mark Musak’s The Book Thief—just two of a long list. Now, I’ll count Elizabeth Wein’s remarkable novel, Code Name Verity, in that class, too.
The novel follows the friendship of two unconventional girls during World War II: mechanically-inclined Maddy, who becomes a pilot, and the wealthy and well-bred Julie, who becomes a German-speaking spy during the French occupation.
Written in the form of Julie’s forced confession at the hands of her Nazi interrogators, the novel immediately draws in the reader with mesmerizing details and tension. The violence is honest but not overly gory, and the voice often darkly funny, quite a feat for something set in a concentration camp. But it is in Part two, when Maddy picks up the narration, that the novel becomes truly heart-stopping. (To say more is a spoiler, sorry.)
This is historical fiction at its best—well-researched, plausible, never pedantic. As a writer, I consider what Elizbeth Wein has done here absolutely astonishing in its breadth and quality. But for me, this novel soars for strong girls because it is so clearly the story of resilient girls tested to their limit. It is the story of courage and war and of the frightening sacrifices we make for the ones we love. – Meg
Helen’s Big World: The Life of Helen Keller
By Doreen Rappaport, Illustrations by Matt Tavares
Picture book, biography
Ages 6 and up, Grades K-4
Disney Hyperion, 2012
ALA Notable Book for Middle Readers *Charlotte Zolotow Award *CCBC Choices Award *Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Platinum Award *Oppenheim SNAP (Special Needs Adaptable Products) Award *ABC Best Books for Children *Entertainment Weekly Great New Historical Books For Kids
Most everyone is familiar with Helen Keller and her teacher, Annie Sullivan. Maybe you’ve read about Helen in school or seen the play The Miracle Worker. Here, Doreen Rappaport’s story and Matt Tavares’ illustrations ignite to give us an electrifying account of Helen Keller’s life story. In her trademark style, Rappaport intersperses Helen’s own words with the unfolding story, and the result is an intimate, moving conversation between biographer and subject. For example, Rappaport tells us, “Once Helen learned to write, she would not stop.” Then, three journal entries by Helen reveal how over the course of just eighteen months, Helen mastered the written word to express her impressions of the world. About astronomers, Helen writes, “When we are sleeping quietly in our beds, they are watching the beautiful sky through the telescope. The stars are called the earth’s brothers and sisters.” Every panel painted by Tavares calls us into Helen’s world, a complex, interior world that evolves from fury and confusion into discovery and ecstasy. We feel the water’s splash and the horse’s whicker in our very own palm. Let the laughter and the tears flow as you read this picture book. I’m so grateful to the author, illustrator, and Helen for reminding me that we all share this big world. And now, we’ll remember to share Helen’s passion and curiosity, too. GA