The Birchbark House

ISBN: 0786814543
ISBN 13: 9780786814541
By: Louise Erdrich

Check Price Now


Children's Childrens Currently Reading Fiction Historical Historical Fiction Multicultural Native American To Read Young Adult

About this book

Nineteenth-century American pioneer life was introduced to thousands of young readers by Laura Ingalls Wilder's beloved Little House books. With The Birchbark House, award-winning author Louise Erdrich's first novel for young readers, this same slice of history is seen through the eyes of the spirited, 7-year-old Ojibwa girl Omakayas, or Little Frog, so named because her first step was a hop. The sole survivor of a smallpox epidemic on Spirit Island, Omakayas, then only a baby girl, was rescued by a fearless woman named Tallow and welcomed into an Ojibwa family on Lake Superior's Madeline Island, the Island of the Golden-Breasted Woodpecker. We follow Omakayas and her adopted family through a cycle of four seasons in 1847, including the winter, when a historically documented outbreak of smallpox overtook the island. Readers will be riveted by the daily life of this Native American family, in which tanning moose hides, picking berries, and scaring crows from the cornfield are as commonplace as encounters with bear cubs and fireside ghost stories. Erdrich--a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwa--spoke to Ojibwa elders about the spirit and significance of Madeline Island, read letters from travelers, and even spent time with her own children on the island, observing their reactions to woods, stones, crayfish, bear, and deer. The author's softly hewn pencil drawings infuse life and authenticity to her poetic, exquisitely wrought narrative. Omakayas is an intense, strong, likable character to whom young readers will fully relate--from her mixed emotions about her siblings, to her discovery of her unique talents, to her devotion to her pet crow Andeg, to her budding understanding of death, life, and her role in the natural world. We look forward to reading more about this brave, intuitive girl--and wholeheartedly welcome Erdrich's future series to the canon of children's classics. (Ages 9 and older) --Karin Snelson

Reader's Thoughts


I occasionally read, and enjoy, young adult literature. The best of it is certainly on a par with any "adult" fiction. This book is aimed at even younger readers, maybe late elementary or middle schoolers. That may be part of the problem I had with it. It describes in some detail the daily life of a family of Ojibwa living on an island in Lake Superior sometime in the 1800s (the time frame is never very clear, but there is plenty of talk of the encroaching white man). Unfortunately, there's not much of a plot -- or conflict -- in the book, and I found myself frequently getting bored. About halfway through the novel, there's a disease outbreak that brings some much-needed tension to the book, and there's a nice twist at the end that explains the otherwise unrelated prologue, but other than that, not much held my attention.


** spoiler alert ** I enjoyed this book very much. The explorations of the Ojibwa culture were interesting and absorbing. The smallpox was so hard to read about. (Is that a spoiler? Maybe.) The nearness to the bone of their lives cheek by jowl with their insistence that the soul of the people is made of laughter was incredibly poignant. More than once I thought, 'yeah, well, take THAT, Laura Ingalls' but no doubt that's only mean-spiritedness on my part. I did love Laura, but I think I'd rather have had Omakayas to grow up with.I found an Ojibwa word in this book that I love with all my heart: manidominenz (mah-nih-DOH-min-eynz), which means tiny beads- but literally means "little spirit seeds". If I ever open a bead store, that's the name of it.The illustrations were the weakest link, I thought. Again, I found myself thinking of Laura Ingalls and those wonderful Garth Williams illustrations- which added so much to my enjoyment of Laura's opposite side of this tale.


One of our literature books for 3rd grade at our school is Little House on the Prairie. Last year, the full-blooded Navajo parent of one of my students was bothered enough by the portrayal of Native Americans in that book that he asked to come in and talk to the class about his tribe.We decided to add a literature book from a Native American perspective to help balance things out a little. I was delighted to finally find this one.Omakayas, the main character in the book is 7 turning 8 years old, has an older sister who's perfect enough to resent, a younger brother who constantly annoys her, and a baby brother she adores. The book opens at the beginning of summer when Omakayas and her family are moving into their summer home. They build their summer birchbark house (a wigwam) and we proceed to follow the family through their adventures of the next year.Omakayas helps her mother cure leather, gathers berries, listens to stories, protects their corn field from ravens (one of whom becomes her pet), learns to sew moccasins and attach tiny beads to decorate them. She also makes friends with a family of bears who return time after time to protect, help, and eventually guide her.When they return to their winter house in the village, they visit with neighbors and we get to see some new traditions, as well as see how difficult surviving through a winter was.My only concerns are two scenes which make me slightly reluctant to recommend this to my students: (view spoiler)[Omakayas's baby brother dies in her arms during a smallpox outbreak. And a crazy old lady who's kindly to Omakayas but has a pack of dogs, one of whom is not at all friendly to her, ends up killing one of the dogs after it attacks Omakayas. (hide spoiler)]Overall, though, excellent book!["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>

Amanda H

** spoiler alert ** Immediately the first paragraph catches your attention and you expect the story to be full of adventure and interesting. It is not the case until about half-way through. The begining is extremely slow with the background information. It explains how the Objiwa tribe that "Little Frog" is part of prepares their Birchbark house for the Spring and the activities that happen during the spring time. Everything keeps hinting at this great "dream" that "Little Frog" is supposed to get but nothing really happens. The only thing interesting is when she goes into the forest and is playing with bear cubs. Around the middle is when things get interesting but extremely sad. Her whole family (except "Little Frog" and her grandmother) gets Smallpox from the white men. Her grandmother becomes too weak to take care of everyone by herself so "Little Frog" starts to help. Unfortunately then her favorite little brother dies and her older sister's extremely good friend dies. "Little Frog" is left in shock for almost the rest of the book. "The Birchbark House" writing style is more geared towards younger children but the content is anything but for younger children. The begining would make most older children put the book down after about the first chapter. Younger children would probably love it but once the family gets smallpox the content is too strong for most young children to handle. Once I got half-way I enjoyed this book but the begining was dry.

Jess Michaelangelo

So, not only can Louise Erdrich write excellent adult fiction, but she is also a master at children's stories. This book would be a perfect way for young readers to branch out and explore different cultures, as well as different time periods. The book focuses mainly on Omakayas (Oh-MAH-kay-as) and her life and the customs of an Oijbwa tribe. I loved Omakayas--she was such a great protagonist. She's smart beyond her years, but she's also just a normal kid, and that makes her relatable to her readers. She thinks her younger brother is a pain, she's jealous of her older sister, and she wants to avoid chores. I was completely caught up in the descriptions of the Ojibwa way of life, and Erdrich wrote effortlessly without being overdetailed or boring. Native Americans rely strongly on their oral storytelling, and that was reflected in this book. Even though I was reading written words, I could hear them being read aloud, and I feel like this would be the perfect book to read huddled around a campfire. Erdrich has a talent with characters, and I could picture each of them perfectly. They had such distinct personalities, and I know that I, for one, want to read more about this family. She sets this one up perfectly for a sequel because it isn't towards the end of the book until Omakayas really discovers her calling in life and actually gets to act upon it. She also has a talent for writing emotions. There were times when my heart leapt, and there was one particular talent that tugged at my heartstrings and left me feeling so sad and desolate that I had to read on in the hopes that something happy would happen again soon. Another thing that I give Erdrich HUGE props for is her use of the Ojibwa vocabulary. There is a glossary in the back of the book, but I found myself using it more for pronunciation purposed than for definitions. Erdrich makes sure that the vocabulary is clearly defined, either by outright stating what it means or by using enough context to make it clear. Really, I didn't even need the glossary for the pronunciation because being that the Ojibwa language was meant to be spoken, not written, the words are spelled phonetically. A small thing that I loved were the illustrations by Erdrich throughout the story. Simple, but strikingly beautiful at the same time. I love stuff like that--it's like little autographs from the author but better! Overall, I loved so much about this book, I can't get over it! I can't wait to read the next one of Omakayas' story and I can't wait to go out and get my own copy of this!


I thought that this book was a little slow to get into. One you passed the few couple chapters, the purpose and plot of the book really pick up. After that, I really enjoyed the book. I think that the things that the protagonist struggles with issues that many young adults also struggle with. This is an important connection that these children can make to the main character and the novel itself. I liked that Ojibwa focus. I think that it was such realistic writing and made me feel like I was there too. I am from the area that this book was placed and I am pretty sure that I have been to the island. So that was an important connection for me.


For those of you who don't know, I'm currently in graduate school for Library and Information Science, with a focus on Children and Young Adult materials. I'm currently in a class about Children's Materials, and while I have a LOT of children's novels assigned to me, I felt like it wouldn't really be fair to apply any of those to my 2013 Reading List. However, I did decide that I wanted at least one to be put towards it, because I had requested in from the library earlier this year but never picked it up due to laziness and forgetfulness. That book was THE BIRCHBARK HOUSE by local author Louise Erdrich. I had helped run a LITTLE HOUSE themed camp at one of the historic sites I work at, and was told that THE BIRCHBARK HOUSE was a very well done counterpoint to those books, showing what life during pioneer times and before was like for the American Indians. I was very happy to see it on the reading list for my class this fall, and I must say that reading it in conjunction with LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE really, really opened my eyes to a few things. So let's get down to the review, shall we?Omakayas is a young Ojibwe girl who lives with her family on an Island in Lake Superior (The Island of the Golden Breasted Woodpecker, spefically, which is modern day Madeline Island in Wisconsin). She has a mother (mother), a father (Deydey), a grandmother (Nokomis) and three siblings (Angeline, Little Pinch, and Neewo). Her father is half French, the son of a fur trader and still very much active in the fur trade that was occurring during this time, and he spends some of the time of the year away from his family so he can provide for them. The story centers around four seasons of Omakayas's life when she is seven years old, and while it is a very typical life for an Ojibwe family during this time (and well researched by the author, from what I've read on it), that winter everything changes for Omakayas and her family. For a stranger wanders to their camp, and brings with him Smallpox.I was not expecting that twist. Well, alright, I kind of was, because the summary on the back of the book alludes to it. I know enough about local history of the tribes in this region to know that this was the time that Smallpox started to really devastate the people in these groups. But when it happened, it was heart wrenching to see. I foolishly had some hope that, since it was a children's story, everyone I grew attached to in the story would be okay. But that was not the case in history, so it was of course not the case in this story. I feel like it was handled in a very good way. It was matter of fact, but it still showed the grief a person feels when they lose someone, and how long term consequences can remain even after the worst of it has passed. At the same time, however, life went on for the family, and while Omakayas was so sad, and so devastated, she also found strength within herself after all of it.That isn't to say that I didn't spend the last half of the novel very much like Louise Erdrich, like I said, very clearly did some research on the culture and history of the Ojibwe up by the Apostle Islands in Wisconsin. I found this book to be not only peppered with lots of great information, but a great counterpoint to the pioneer novels that have become so beloved in our culture. THE BIRCHBARK HOUSE is one that should be just as much a part of a child's library as the LITTLE HOUSE books are. Phenomenal. I want to find the next one as soon as possible.

Cheryl in CC NV

For some reason this didn't quite hit my 'enjoy' button. I believe it was well-written, and it had a good mix of historical value, excitement, humor, family relationships, and coming-of-age inner story. I suspect the only kids who read it are those who get it read to them in school, though.


I really enjoyed this book. I love Louise Erdrich as an author and read her children's book at the recommendation of a friend. I wish I'd read this as a child, because it's exactly the sort of thing I would have loved!The book deals wonderfully with identity, family, responsibility, and death from a child's perspective. It's also an interesting historical look into Native American life in 1847. Erdrich's love and respect for her heritage always shines through in her work.I love Erdrich's normal writing style, and while it wasn't quite as nuanced, I liked her "child voice" as well. I thought it was an honest portrayal of a child's mind with which any young person (especially those with siblings) could identity. Overall, I would recommend this book to children or tweens, or anyone who is a fan of Erdrich's work.

Myah Quinn

In all honesty, I had a really hard time getting into this book, especially at the beginning of my reading. Because the text was so detailed and the story took a while to pick up, I just found it a bit hard to get in to at first. It reminded me so much of the Little House books! However, now that I have finished the book, I can say that I really enjoyed reading about Omakayas and the Ojibwe peoples. Erdrich does a great job of making this text into an authentic experience for readers, and I loved the fact that the plot was so close to home. This book had me thinking a lot about how thankful I am for everything that I have in my life, and I think that elementary children could really learn a lot about native peoples and their own lives from this well-written text. It was, overall, a pretty good book.


Recommended for grades 4th and up“The Birch bark House”, by Louise Eridich, is a response to the “Little House on the Prairie” series. It takes at westward expansion from the perspective of Native Americans. The book centers on an Ojibwa family on an island in Lake Superior after surviving a small pocks epidemic. The story is told in a third-person narrative, through a year. It focuses on a young girl, Omakayas, who turns “eight winters old”, In a chronological order the author describes how the tribe builds a summer home from birch bark, gather with family members to harvest rice in the fall, treat smallpox during the winter and make maple syrup in the spring to sell to others. Erdrich, uses the culture and traditions of the Ojibwa tribe to convey, Omakayas experiences of childhood: her love for animals and her ability to cope with harsh winters. Through out the book the author gives hints at Omakayas’s calling as a healer and the dangers of the “chimookoman”/white people bring to her tribe.Subject: History/Social Studies“The Birch bark House”, is a great book to use in a history lesson to explain the effects the white man had on the Native Americans. It can also be used to learn about how the Ojibwa tribe lived and their traditions.


OBOB 2014. My 9-year old son began reading this book and said it was boring, so I had low expectations. I was very pleasantly surprised. I enjoyed the characters and respected how the author tackled tough issues like death, hunger, traditions, racism and family in a real, yet age appropriate way. It did take a little while to get into the plot, but it was a rewarding read once you were hooked.

Mira Gill

As I read this book, to me it somewhat took longer to get through the beginning rather than the ending. The beginning was full of much detail and description on Omakayas and her family. Even though it was hard to get through I am glad I took the time to read and comprehend it. I was able to learn so much about the Ojibwe lifestyle, which was very interesting and very eye opening. The ending is where the intensity of the story heightened and the book became a page turner for me. Overall I really enjoyed the story, the detail was great and I also felt the glossary in the back of the book that gave definitions of the Ojibwe language was awesome!


This was just ok. I read it for the school library. I'm probably not the best judge since Native American lore is not of particular interest to me. However, I enjoyed the picturesque quality about it and it was interesting enough that I wanted to finish it. The main character is an 8 year old girl and I did find the depressive theme a but too heavy for one so young. It felt like an older person talking but maybe that was intentional on he authors part. I think she wanted her to be special. Nothing questionable in it. The realism of half starving through a winter, fighting disease and facing the death of loved ones at times I think would put this book in the 6th grade and up category.

Jamie Leslie

In the book The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich, a young girl named Omakayas lives with her family in the year 1849. When she was a baby, she was the lone survivor of a smallpox outbreak that killed everyone in her village. She then was placed with a foster family though she has no idea that she is not related to them by blood. This story proceeds to tell about Omakayas and her crisis with discovering who she is and what she is meant to do in her life. A great story filled with destiny, hope, tragedy, and love. I think this book would make for an interesting read for students. It would also be great to expand this book across the curriculum by talking about Native Americans during that time for social studies, having students dry their own leather or fur for science, and many other different subjects. The text was easy enough to understand but still presented an interesting story. I think students can relate to this text because there will always be a family member that we lose to a certain sickness, so the reader can definitely relate to the story. I really enjoyed this book. I thought it was a great way to gleam some insight into the daily life of a Native American girl living in 1849. It also introduced a lot of unfamiliar and multicultural vocabulary such as makazins, which are what the characters wore in the book for shoes. I also loved how the chapters were broken up into seasons. This was a great way to introduce the changes the girl and her family had the make with each differing season. I would definitely recommend this book to my peers and students.

Share your thoughts

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *