Reader’s Response Journal: Biblioburro

BiblioburroCitation:

Winter, Jeanette. Biblioburro: A True Story from Colombia. New York: Beach Lane-Simon & Schuster, 2010. Print.

Plot:

Luis had so many books in his house that his wife, Diana, started to get frustrated. Luis had the idea bringing books to children who had none in remote Colombian villages. He got two donkeys named Alfa and Beto, strapped crates for the books to their backs and created the “biblioburro” (the burro library). He rode all over with his burros, sharing a love of reading and his books with people who began to look forward to his visits.

Setting:

Set in rural Colombia, contemporary time period.

Point of View:

3rd person

Theme:

Literacy promotion, serving others, creative problem solving

Literary Quality:

Two or three short, simple sentences are on each page, making this book appropriate for young children. Text and pictures complement each other nicely. The use of speech bubbles and thought bubbles (with words and pictures) also add to the richness of the story. This book was on the 2011 commended list for the Américas Award for Children’s and Young Adult Literature.

Quality of Illustrations:

The illustrations were done with bright, jungle colors and have the appearance of folk art. Many birds, lizards, butterflies and other insects occupy the pages with Luis, the burros and the children. There are many details for readers to examine, including a tiny second appearance of the bandit who tried to rob him, now reading a book too!

Cultural Authenticity:

This book was based on the true story of Luis Soriano in Colombia who really does travel with his biblioburro. Jeanette Winter heard of Luis from an article in the New York Times and was inspired to share more. Because the story is brief, it is hard to accuse Winter of embellishing the details. The illustrations of the Colombian characters have dark skin and black hair, with simple, colorful clothing, also seemingly respectful to Luis and the people of Colombia he serves.

Audience:

This book is most likely appropriate for preschool- through early elementary-aged children. It will also appeal to librarians and teachers for the love of reading that it promotes.

Personal Reaction:

I really enjoyed this book because of how it recorded for posterity the ingenuity of Luis Soriano and his quest to share books with people. In fact, it made me go out searching for more information on Luis and I did find several pictures, videos and articles about what he is doing in Colombia. This is the kind of book that makes you feel good about humanity. I also love how Winter portrayed Luis as a perpetual teacher and a librarian at heart, notably in the scene where he brings masks for the children to wear as he reads The Three Little Pigs to them before they could choose their books. It made me feel a connection to him as a someone who just wants to bring books alive for kids.

Reader’s Response Journal: Esperanza Rising

Esperanza RisingCitation:

Ryan, Pam Muñoz. Esperanza Rising. 2000. New York: Scholastic, 2007. Print.

Plot:

After Esperanza’s father is murdered and their house mysteriously burns down, Esperanza and her mother escape with a family of their former servants (Hortensia, Alfonzo and Miguel) in the middle of the night to avoid being caught by Tío Luis, who wants to marry Esperanza’s mother in order to increase his political status. They make the long journey to California hiding in the bed of a papaya truck and then on a dusty train, where they settle in with the family of Alfonzo’s brother to work in the fields picking fruits and vegetables. At first Esperanza has a hard time adjusting to the sudden poverty that she had never experienced before. When Esperanza’s mother falls seriously ill, Esperanza steps up and takes her place working in the fields to be able to pay the medical bills and save money to bring Abuelita from Mexico. One day, Miguel runs off and Esperanza discovers that he has stolen all of the money she saved. Esperanza’s mother recovers and Miguel eventually returns with a surprise that lifts everyone’s spirits.

Setting:

Set in the 1920s and 1930s in Aguascalientes, Mexico, and the San Joaquin Valley, California.

Point of View:

3rd person

Theme:

Coming of age, riches-to-rags, humility, poverty, corruption, racism and classism, teamwork, importance of family.

Literary Quality:

The writing is descriptive and believable, from Esperanza’s spoiled brat attitudes to her extreme worry over her mother’s health. Muñoz Ryan creatively uses fruits and vegetables as themes for each chapter, symbolizing an important event and eventually the growing season that Esperanza and her “extended family” arrange their lives around. This book won the Pura Belpré Award, was honored by the Américas Award for Children’s and Young Adult Literature and made multiple “best books” lists.

Cultural Authenticity:

The book is peppered with Mexican proverbs and even a traditional birthday song in Spanish, all translated to English as well. Muñoz Ryan wrote this book based on the recollections and the life of her own grandmother who immigrated to the United States to work in the migrant farm camps under similar circumstances and conditions. She researched the strikes and labor movements described in the book, the Repatriation and Deportation Acts and the Valley Fever that made Esperanza’s mother sick (and that Muñoz Ryan herself tested positive for the antibodies of due to growing up in the same valley).

Audience:

This book would be appropriate for an upper-elementary or middle school audience. It has a general appeal and a twist on the rags-to-riches theme where the wealthy are humbled instead. The Spanish language and cultural content is handled with support for the unfamiliar reader.

Personal Reaction:

This book pleasantly surprised me, because I expected a more babyish story. Instead I got a realistic look at life during this time period, with dynamic characters that had very human emotions and reactions. Esperanza’s difficulty with adjusting and her irritation with Isabel were so very well done. I had always meant to read this story and had even always heard positive reviews of it, even from students who are reluctant readers, so I am glad that I had the chance. The book was so engaging that I just ate it up.

Reader’s Response Journal: Breaking Through

Breaking ThroughCitation:

Jiménez, Francisco. Breaking Through. Carmel: Hampton-Brown, 2001. Print.

Plot:

Francisco Jiménez writes a memoir of his secondary school days in California where his family came as migrant farm workers. He and his brother were deported when he was 14, temporarily causing the family to move back to Mexico. When they return, Panchito (as he is known by his family) and his older brother Roberto work part-time jobs throughout junior high and high school to help support their family, especially since their father’s health and depression sometimes prevents him from working. Panchito does not have a lot of time for friends, but does enjoy going to dances and participating in student government. He manages to get into college and get enough scholarships (and a loan) to attend. It is difficult for his father to support Panchito in going to college, but his mother and little brother help him accept the idea, with some help from Panchito’s counselor and teacher.

Setting:

Bonetti Ranch and Santa Maria, California, in the 1950s and 60s.

Point of View:

1st person (Panchito)

Theme:

Family loyalty, respect for parents, racism, poverty, cultural pride, identity, coming of age, education as liberator.

Literary Quality:

Jiménez’s writing is clear and descriptive, with the right amount of dialogue to move the story along. The retelling of his adolescence is coherent, instead of just a string of disjointed anecdotes. This edition includes “On-Page Coach” annotations of bolded vocabulary, on-page glossaries and discussion questions. Breaking Through won the Américas Award for Children’s and Young Adult Literature, the Pura Belpré Award, the Tomás Rivera Mexican American Children’s Book Award, and made several other “best books” lists between 2001 and 2003. Fortunately, Panchito’s tale is continued in Jiménez’s two other memoirs on his childhood and young adulthood.

Cultural Authenticity:

Given that Francisco Jiménez is a cultural insider and is writing an autobiographical account, the cultural authenticity of Breaking Through is solid. He includes some expressions in Spanish, which are often explained, though not translated, in context. This edition’s on-page glossaries added translations of any words that the reader wanted clarification on. The reader gets a rich view of the life of this Mexican American family. Jiménez also showed contrast of the two cultures he was navigating by including both of his nicknames—“Panchito” with the Mexicans and “Frankie” with the Americans. He consulted with other family members to corroborate and develop some of the stories he included in the book.

Audience:

The interest level of this book is probably aimed at middle and high school readers, since these are the years of Jiménez’s life that were featured. The “On-Page Coach” notes from publisher Hampton-Brown also make the book accessible even to low-intermediate (and up) English Language Learners and reluctant readers, by simplifying idiomatic language that could be confusing. Young readers will appreciate the struggles Panchito experienced with his family and his studies and will be inspired by his dedication and hope for the future.

Personal Reaction:

This book was one that I had been meaning to read for years because of its relevance to the immigrant student population I work with. It was an enjoyable read and I was surprised by the traditional values and strong work ethic it promotes. I wondered if Panchito was really as well-behaved as he came off to be in the text. His infractions of disrespect and talking back seem benign to me (I was much sassier, as are many of the teenagers I know), but he really was a likable character that I was rooting for in the end. I was impressed by how Jiménez skillfully and subtly gave the reader looks at the racism he experienced, the fear of being revealed as an immigrant, and the confusion he had sometimes as an English Language Learner and outsider of the dominant culture.

Reader’s Response Journal: La Línea

La LineaCitation:

Jaramillo, Ann. La Línea. New Milford, Connecticut: Roaring Brook Press, 2006. Print.

Plot:

Miguel’s plans to leave Mexico and join his parents in El Norte change when his younger sister, Elena, unexpectedly joins him. The two take a bus, ride on top of freight trains, and hide under blankets in the back of a pickup to get to the border town where they meet the coyote, Moisés,who will smuggle them across the border. They narrowly escape several dangerous situations, lose much of their money and meet a Central American traveling companion along the way. A seasoned professional, Moisés prepares them and leads them on their walk across the desert, but he is shot and captured by militia halfway through the journey. On their own, they battle thirst and the elements before making it back to civilization in Southern California, barely alive. In an epilogue set ten years later, the brother and sister look back on the experience with heavy hearts.

Setting:

Contemporary time period. Set on the road between San Jacinto, Mexico, and California.

Point of View:

1st person (Miguel)

Theme:

Immigration and migration, survival, danger, coming of age, sibling relations, separation of families.

Literary Quality:

Jaramillo’s novel is fast-moving and succinct, yet filled with powerful imagery. The plot is not overridden the protagonists being assaulted with every worst-case scenario that could possibly happen, nor does it gloss over the real life-threatening perils they face. Each chapter is short, lasting no more than a couple pages and every character and description serves to move the plot forward. La Línea was honored with the Américas Award for Children’s and Young Adult Literature in 2007 and appeared on multiple “best books” lists during 2006 and 2007.

Cultural Authenticity:

The author was inspired to write this novel by the Mexican immigrant middle school students she teaches in California. She explains at the end of the book how she based the story on real situations and events. She also consulted with individuals and organizations interested in the struggle of immigrants at the border, especially the reporting of Sonia Nazario, the author of the highly acclaimed nonfiction book, Enrique’s Journey. Spanish language is integrated into the novel, often without a recasting of the English translation, yet generally comprehensible from the context. This technique gives the book the feel that the characters actually are Mexican teenagers, not just an English-speaking version of who the author imagines they are.

Audience:

La Línea is probably most appropriate for a middle school or young adult audience. It could especially appeal to reluctant readers because of its length, action and linear plot. This book might also be useful for opening dialogue around the topic of illegal immigration and undocumented children in the United States since it presents the “human side” to the story.

Personal Reaction:

This book takes me though multiple emotions: frustration, anticipation, mistrust, worry, relief, satisfaction, sadness. I love the use of Spanish and the love-hate relationship between brother and sister. I first encountered La Línea a couple years ago when I used it as a read-aloud for a READ 180 class I was teaching. As an ESL teacher, I was aware that many of my students were undocumented immigrants, but I didn’t have any idea how parallel many of their stories were to this book. I remember asking several times, “Does this really happen?” and they would confirm it with extra details of what happened to them, tell me about how they were raised by grandparents while their parents were here, or recommend similar Spanish-language movies. Jaramillo wrote a story that needed to be told!

Reader’s Response Journal: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time IndianCitation:

Alexie, Sherman. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Illus. Ellen Forney. New York: Scholastic, 2007. Print.

Plot:

Junior is a Spokane Indian who decides that he will get a better education if he transfers to the nearby white high school instead of staying at the reservation high school. His choice is unpopular with his community and he even loses his best friend Rowdy. His start at Reardan High School is also rocky as he encounters racism and loneliness and tries to hide his poverty. Junior eventually makes friends with the genius kid Gordy,” begins “semi-dating” a white girl named Penelope and makes the basketball team. When Junior’s grandmother, his dad’s friend Eugene and his sister Mary die unexpectedly, Junior blames himself and questions his choice to leave the reservation for school. After Mary’s funeral, it is basketball that brings him and Rowdy back together and gives Junior some peace.

Setting:

Contemporary time period. Set in Wellpinit and Reardan, Washington.

Point of View:

1st person (Junior)

Theme:

Identity, race, hopes and dreams, friendships, maintaining tradition, death and grief.

Literary Quality:

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian also won the National Book Award in 2007, among other awards and praise. Alexie created a multifaceted teen-aged character in Junior. As a budding cartoonist, Junior shows us examples of his talent, humor, angst and grief through his cartoons and drawings as well as his words. Supporting characters serve to develop the plot as well as Junior’s reaction to adversity. Alexie did a nice job balancing “teenager behavior” (like  masturbation or playing on the school basketball team) with conflicts that make Junior’s experience unique (like hitchhiking to school or Eugene’s gruesome death). Perhaps one of the most valuable aspects of the book was the idea of being a “part-time Indian” and how kids that grow up bicultural sometimes don’t feel fully welcome in either culture (like Junior being called an “apple”: red on the outside, white on the inside—this really happens!) Junior’s experience will speak to kids going through the same thing, regardless of their cultural background.

Cultural Authenticity:

Alexie is a Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian that grew up on the reservation where this book was set. In fact, he dedicated the book to his “hometowns” of Wellpinit and Reardan, the towns featured. The main character of this book was loosely based on his own childhood experiences. The Indians seemed to be represented fairly and we see both their failures and triumphs, strengths and weaknesses throughout the book. The American Indian Library Association awarded its American Indian Youth Literature Award to this book in 2008, indicating that the book “present[s] American Indians in the fullness of their humanity in the present and past contexts.”

Audience:

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is probably most appropriate for a high school or young adult audience, due to some mild sexuality and a few tough deaths. Culturally, however, this book has a wider audience than just the Native Americans featured in it. Most teenagers will be drawn to Junior’s honest and humorous take on the world, while learning more about a subculture they might not be familiar with.

Personal Reaction:

When I came upon this book a couple years ago, it was through the recommendation of a high school boy in summer school who claimed it was “the best book he ever read.” That kind of endorsement made me pay attention, especially since it appealed to a teenaged boy (who very rarely seem to recommend books)! It is a very quick read and I think I tore through it faster this time than I did the first time because I knew it was good. Sometimes the cartoon illustrations got on my nerves because there were a few that didn’t seem to help the story, but there were others that I sat and studied for a bit before resuming reading. When I finished, I was sad to leave Junior’s world and wished that I could know more about what happens to him next.

Reader’s Response Journal: The Heart of a Chief

Heart of a Chief book coverCitation:

Bruchac, Joseph. The Heart of a Chief. 1998. New York: Puffin Books-Penguin Putnam Books for Young Readers, 2001. Print.

Plot:

The year Chris Nicola, a Penacook Indian boy, begins sixth grade at Rangerville Junior High School, it seems that almost everyone in his life is growing apart. His father is fighting an addiction and doesn’t live with him, the people on his reservation are divided over the possible construction of a casino on their sacred island, one of his best friends stops talking with him and joins the football team, and other kids at school are upset about the challenge to their mascot, the Chiefs—a debate that Chris seems to have initiated through a group project he is working on for Language Arts. Chris is worried, but has no choice but to step up in leadership and look out for his family, friends and community. He even gets invited to join the wrestling team. The group presentation goes so well that the community takes note and begins the process to vote on a new mascot. Chris is disappointed that his father is not around to share in the excitement, but later his dad comes through with an idea that solves the casino problem too.

Setting:

Contemporary time period. Set in a fictional Penacook reservation and a nearby town in New Hampshire.

Point of View:

1st person (Chris)

Theme:

Cultural insensitivity, coming of age, maintaining tradition and identity, standing up for yourself

Literary Quality:

Bruchac uses powerful metaphors and similes as well as humor in his descriptions throughout the book. The author created a believable and likeable young protagonist in Chris. For example, Chris behaves with trepidation (as many sixth-graders would) when faced with entering an upperclassmen restroom by accident, finding one of the biggest guys in school there and fully expecting to be pounded. Likewise, when he smarts off to a teacher or burns all the surveyors’ stakes, he expects trouble. He does not realize when he overhears his aunt talking about Chris’ growing leadership on the phone with his father that she is talking about him. He sees himself as just a kid that doesn’t have much control. Though the author makes allusions to the “bigger picture” for the reader, the narrator doesn’t pick up on them the same way, in keeping with his status as a sixth-grader coming into his own.

Cultural Authenticity:

Though Joseph Bruchac is not completely of Native American descent (only 1/8 Abenaki), he has professional and personal experience with Native kids. He seems to have drawn upon the realities he witnessed and as described to him by other cultural insiders when creating this novel. He chose to set the story on a fictional reservation, so as not to damage anyone directly, but still tackles many sensitive issues present among these groups. The Native American group that Bruchac featured for his imaginary reservation, the Penacook are actually a Western Abenaki tribe, though not officially recognized as a sovereign nation by the government. Bruchac includes Penacook vocabulary throughout the book and acknowledges common Native American stereotypes as part of the story, which further establishes a neutral bias.

Audience:

With a 6th grade protagonist, the probable audience for this book is upper elementary or middle school. However, many of the characters’ experiences are not completely unique to tweens, so older readers/high schoolers would likely enjoy this book too, since the conflict and issues in the book are generally not very juvenile (mascot controversy, land use and development for a casino, the health aging guardians).

Personal Reaction:

I truly delighted in this story, even though it seemed predictable that our young hero would probably find a way to save the day by the end. I liked that the novel had a contemporary setting and the kids attended a public school, because non-Native American children could have an easier time identifying with the culture and story, instead of dismissing it as “the other” or as historical and passé. I did feel like Bruchac may have confronted too many Native American issues for the context of one novel, but ultimately they served as evidence for Chris’ maturation and growing leadership.

Reader’s Response Journal: Wild Berries, Pikaci-Mīnisa.

Wild Berries book coverCitation:

Flett, Julie. Wild Berries, Pikaci-Mīnisa. Vancouver: Simply Read Books, 2013. Print.

Plot:

Clarence and his grandmother go out into the woods to pick wild berries. Together, they sing and fill their buckets and tummies with blueberries. Around them are other woodland creatures, like an ant, a spider and a fox (as well as deer, birds and butterflies depicted in the illustrations). Clarence leaves a small pile of blueberries as an offering to the creatures and says, “Thank you” as he and his grandmother head home. The story concludes with a pronunciation guide for the Cree words and a simple recipe for blueberry jam.

Setting:

The story takes place in the woods where blueberries grow. The time-period is unclear, though probably contemporary.

Point of View:

3rd person omniscient, though several illustrations focus on Clarence

Theme:

Grandparent-grandchild relationships, activities in nature, respect for nature

Literary Quality:

There is only one sentence (and sometimes an additional “sound effect”) on the left pages and illustrations on the right. The Cree-English portions are written in another font and separated a little from the rest of the words, emphasizing the bilingual nature of the story. The simplicity of the text and the detail of the illustrations work nicely together to reflect the characters’ experience.

Quality of Illustrations:

The illustrations have a subtle, painted collage-look to them. Flett used mainly dark colors in the pictures, with deep greens and browns on the trees. Grandmother and Clarence both have dark hair that contrasts with their skin. The use of red throughout the book is striking, reserved for the Cree words, the sun, Grandmother’s skirt and a few small natural details (butterflies, flowers, mushrooms). The illustrations are calm, without agitation, reflecting the peaceful relationship the pair has with nature.

Cultural Authenticity:

The author is a Cree-Métis author and illustrator. She includes a word of the story on every page also written in Cree, from the Swampy Cree n-dialect of the Cumberland House area. The book was also published in the Cross Lake, Norway house n-dialect of Cree. She includes a note at the beginning of the book and at the end of the book explaining the dialect and her source. She also acknowledges the people and First Peoples organizations that supported her project. The inclusion of the Cree words is primarily what makes this picture book authentic. However, the natural themes are also a nod to the culture of the First Peoples.

Audience:

This picture book is likely aimed at small children and toddlers to be read to them by the adults in their lives. The art and text are calm and simple and may not appeal to older children as much, though the bilingual component and pronunciation guide add a layer of sophistication.

Personal Reaction:

When I first paged through this book, I did not realize that the Cree culture was the one being represented. The use of red and dark colors and trees made me think of art by Japanese artists that I had seen before. When I noticed the bilingual text, I skipped back to the front and back of the book to investigate the origin of the words. It took the combination of realizing Flett’s background, the Cree words and the natural themes in the pictures to help me fully understand the story. I am unsure how a young child would react because I have little experience with preschoolers and calm books, but I would hope the effect would be the same quiet and happy one that I had reading it.

Reader’s Response Journal: Moccasin Thunder

Citation:Moccasin Thunder book cover

Carlson, Lori Marie, ed. Moccasin Thunder. New York: HarperCollins, 2005. Print.

Plot:

Lori Marie Carlson compiles an anthology of short stories by ten American Indian writers, each representing a different tribe and telling a unique contemporary story. Each author uses an adolescent or pre-adolescent main character to narrate their tale as they try to make sense of the world and their identities. The teenaged (or tween) storytellers give us an honest glimpse into their [fictional] lives and reveal examples of contemporary American Indian life. Some of the characters exude frustration; others radiate shame; some maintain pride; but most display hope.

Setting:

Contemporary, recent past (or modern history—still during 20th century). Set in the United States or Canada: an Indian boarding school, in a public access cable booth in the Northwest Territories, in a costume shop in Texas, at Grandma’s house out in the country on the Great Plains, in a rowboat in the middle of Lake George, on a hillside near a convent, in an apartment in a refurbished Army barracks, at a potluck for a Storyteller’s visit, at an American Indian Center dance in Chicago.

Point of View:

1st person, ten different adolescent narrators

Theme:

school, family, tradition, racism, substance abuse, sexuality, poverty, dreams, mistakes

Literary Quality:

Each author is an experienced, well-published author, very capable of telling a short story that develops its characters and plot in 30 pages or less. The stories use dialogue and descriptive language to “show instead of tell.” Sometimes the narrator’s voice is so convincing that the reader is wont to go back and check that the story is not actually autobiographical.

Cultural Authenticity:

The editor includes short biographies of each writer at the end of the book, giving the reader a better idea of their background. Each story was written by an American Indian author, qualified to share their cultural experiences. The editor also includes a heartfelt note at the beginning about her reasons for compiling such stories, even though she is not of Native American background or educational expertise. However, there is also an introduction by Dr. Helen Maynor, who does have a tribal affiliation and is an assistant director of the National Museum of the American Indian. She touts the virtues and authenticity of the stories, lending her authority to the compiled selections.

Audience:

This book is probably best used with young adult and adult readers, given that some of the themes are a little raw or graphic (such as sexual assault or drug use). There are a few selections that are less “edgy” that might be appropriate for middle school readers. Adolescent readers will probably be highly interested in this edginess and may identify with some of the characters’ struggles.

Personal Reaction:

I generally felt like this book was enjoyable to read, though some stories kept my attention better than others. I was rooting for Kevin the drug-dealer in “The Last Snow of the Virgin Mary” as he dreamt of turning his life around and smacked my hand to my forehead as I realized he messed up. I got a kick out of the sassy character that fumbles in love in “A Real-Live Blond Cherokee and His Equally Annoyed Soul Mate.” The sexual confrontation in “Wild Geese (1934)” and the brother’s anger in “Crow” made me uncomfortable. I was satisfied that Fawn gets a happy ending in “Drum Kiss,” as tween turmoil can be pretty distressing for kids. Each story managed to evoke an emotion from me as a reader. Overall, I thought Moccasin Thunder succeeded in its goal of sharing contemporary American Indian culture with its audience.

What do we do with Little House on the Prairie now?

I posit the following: Little House on the Prairie is culturally insensitive.

Do Not Read poster graphicAs a librarian, censorship is not the answer, nor is censorship through selection an answer either. Just as I would want my patrons to have access to Mein Kampf or the Bible, readers should be able to access Little House on the Prairie. We can never know a reader’s intent anyway; perhaps a reader is doing comparative analysis for a dissertation and is looking at portrayals of Native Americans throughout literature…

However, if Little House goes out of print, and it becomes difficult to replace a worn-out copy, then we move on. Likewise, if it stops circulating and the library can use its shelf space more productively, so be it. My hypothetical (albeit, nonexistent) sentimental attachment to the book is irrelevant at that point and we go with the library’s weeding policy. This is why libraries have circulation policies after all. There are archives and special historical collections (there is one at the CCBC, for example) that will preserve access if the book merits preservation.

If I had a teacher colleague looking to do a unit on Little House, I would try to encourage him/her to be careful not to gloss over the cultural insensitivities and pair it with another book like Birchbark House for a more balanced perspective. I was personally very troubled by the portrayal of Native Americans in Little House on the Prairie, so I would have a hard time as a school librarian promoting or recommending it to young readers just looking for a recreational read, because I think it merits a contextualized, critical view.

LHP Indians illustration

image from http://newspaperrock. bluecorncomics.com/2008/02/ stereotypes-on-prairie.html

I do not believe that level of critical thinking is common in the average 3rd grade independent reader. I am not trying to diminish or discredit the abilities of young thinkers, but I believe that teaching critical reading is like teaching information literacy: “If it’s on the internet, it must be true” and “If it’s in my book, it must be true.” I know adults who think like this. Not okay! It takes practice (and obviously, some of us did not get enough…) To me, a book like Little House that inspires strong distaste among the minority group portrayed within deserves to be handled intentionally and critically by the teachers and adults presenting it to our society’s children, so as not further negate this group.

A colleague of mine used to teach on a reservation in North Dakota. She told me a story of a friend she had there who had grown up in one of those Indian Boarding Schools. As a girl, she used to sneak into a “restricted room” to get the “good books” and subsequently read all the Little House books. She said that in light of the “white,” suppressive education she was receiving and the often negative portrayals of Indians she read about in fiction, she could not even see herself. “Indians were fearsome and evil.” Not until she was an adult did she realize what had been taken from her–intentionally or not. Imagine she had read Little House under the tutelage of someone who helped her challenge what was unfair about it. Her identity and self-perception might have developed differently.

A House divided: Little House on the Prairie and Birchbark House

Little House and the Prairie (by Laura Ingalls Wilder) and The Birchbark House (by Louise Erdrich) are both children’s books about relatively the same period of time, both with interactions between white settlers and Native American populations. Truly, different households though–one white and one Native! After visiting both, I end up feeling uneasy about the merits of a so-called American classic.

I understand the nostalgia surrounding Little House on the Prairie, but I don’t have it myself. I didn’t read the series as a child, nor did I watch the show. (The mall in my hometown did put up these great robotic displays of the Big Woods Ingalls family around Christmastime though.) Truthfully, the book made me really uncomfortable, even before I considered what the critics had to say. Manifest destiny and white imperialist attitudes really bother me anyway, and there were plenty of those in the book. (I also hate that this still goes on in our world… I’m sorry, but no, we don’t need to go out and tame the “heathens.” There is a fine line between service and imperialism). Yes, it seemed like when Ma and Pa shut Laura down as she was basically asked, “Isn’t it their land?” that it was an acknowledgement on Wilder’s part that even the characters knew their attitudes weren’t right.

The prejudice, fear and naïvety toward the Natives Americans was also a little much for me. It was undesirable to have Indian qualities: Ma didn’t want the girls to be “brown like an Indian” or “yell like an Indian.” The Indians that the Ingalls interact with “smell terrible,” steal and menace them. The diplomatic descriptions romanticized the Indians as “noble savages” (e.g. Laura’s “papoose” or Soldat du Chêne being “one good Indian”).

I don’t know why Huck Finn didn’t bother me the same way. Maybe the difference for me was that Little House was quite frankly written for a much younger audience and I wouldn’t expect the same level of critical thinking about these issues by elementary students. It feels a little too much like negative indoctrinating.

That said, the storyline was cute and I did enjoy the pioneer adventure. The idea of building everything from the ground up reminded me a little of wilderness camping and the kind of stuff my grandpa did/does out in the country on his farm.

As for Birchbark House, I don’t nearly have as much to say. I loved the story; it felt like I was looking in a window of another culture. I thought the story was masterful in that each character truly served the story and moved the plot forward. I had kind of forgotten about the introduction about Tallow and the “Girl from Spirit Island,” so that was a pleasant surprise. I read the book an early morning flight after an exhausting (but fun) trip, so I nodded off a few times, but I don’t think that had anything to do with the story quality.

Birchbark House isn’t as much of an adventure story though, so there was less action, but definitely more character development. I felt like I knew Omakayas and understood how she felt by the end. I didn’t feel this with Laura. I smiled when she was “naughty” (aw man, that part about wading in the stream and her “naughty foot”… that was the best!) but she seemed a little more robotic to me. I didn’t feel like I was walking in her shoes. I did want to know “what would happen next” more with Little House, and there was less of this for me with Birchbark House (with the exception of the smallpox).

I was satisfied when I finished Birchbark House; I felt like I had learned. I was a bit relieved at the end of Little House though; I definitely had mixed feelings. I was glad to have read it, but also glad that I hadn’t as a child.

Reader’s Response Journal: The Birchbark House

The Birchbark House book coverCitation:

Erdrich, Louise. The Birchbark House. New York: Hyperion Books for Children, 1999. Print.

Plot:

The Birchbark House follows the life of an Ojibwa girl named Omakayas for a year on the Island of the Golden-Breasted Woodpecker. During the gathering dance that marks the beginning of the winter settlement, a dying fur-trader appears, infecting much of the village with smallpox, including most of Omakayas’ family. Though she did not fall ill from smallpox, Omakayas is weakened from the grief over the death of her baby brother Neewo. In an attempt to snap her out of it, a friend of the family, Old Tallow, takes her aside and reveals that she rescued Omakayas as a baby when she was the sole survivor of a smallpox outbreak on Spirit Island. This is why Omakayas didn’t catch smallpox while caring for her adopted family. Omakayas finds some peace in the realization of her budding gift for healing and the truth of her past.

Setting:

An Ojibwa village on an island in Lake Superior in 1847

Point of View:

3rd person (Omakayas)

Theme:

Identity, grief, community, storytelling, coming of age

Literary Quality:

Louise Erdrich crafts an engaging story for readers while offering a look into Ojibwa traditions. There are illustrations by the author throughout the novel to help us visualize how she imagined the characters. Erdrich masterfully includes other Ojibwa stories to develop characters or tie the plot together. The use of Ojibwa vocabulary in context, often with recasts in English, gives the reader an exposure to and repetition of the language. Well-written and researched, The Birchbark House was honored as a National Book Award Finalist in 1999.

Cultural Authenticity:

This book is an uplifting representation from the point of view of a minority group not often celebrated in American historical fiction from this period. Erdrich is a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwa and wrote The Birchbark House to honor and retrace her own family history. Through research, she found that she had ancestors who lived on Madeline Island during the same time period that this book was set. She chose an authentic Ojibwa name for the protagonist from a real Turtle Mountain Census to further honor the people of that time. Erdrich also humbly consulted with the historical society, teachers and tribal elders to represent the Ojibwa culture and language as best she could.

Audience:

This book is appropriate for a middle school, high school or even adult audience. Although the main character is a 7 year-old girl, the reading level might be a little difficult for a younger or beginning reader, especially with the integration of Ojibwa vocabulary. Young readers may not understand how to consult a glossary and could get stuck on foreign pronunciations. Because of the extensive cultural content, older readers may enjoy the view into the language, culture and history of a people through fiction, instead of a traditional non-fiction representation.

Personal Reaction:

This novel fed some of my curiosity and gave me a deeper appreciation for one of the Native cultures present in my state. My prior knowledge of the Ojibwa had been very casual, so I was pleased to get what seemed to be a deeper look. I was also pleased to notice that pieces this book corroborated with other pieces I’ve encountered over the years (like a historical fiction book about a smallpox epidemic in Quebec or a video piece about Ojibwa deer hunting). I especially enjoyed the inclusion of the Ojibwa vocabulary since I am a bit of a language buff. It was helpful to have the words in context and repeated. By the end I actually felt like I retained some of the words! American culture often ignores or misunderstands Native culture since they are often literally marginalized on reservations. This book does a great job of adding a human face to a beautiful culture that more people should know about.

Reader’s Response Journal: Little House on the Prairie

Citation:Little House on the Prairie book cover

Wilder, Laura Ingalls. Little House on the Prairie. Illus. Garth Williams. 1935. New York: Harper & Row, 1953. Print.

Plot:

Laura and her family leave their cabin in the Big Woods of Wisconsin to settle out in Indian Territory. The family and their dog travel in a covered wagon with meager supplies before settling on the high prairie west of Independence, Missouri. For the next year, they build a house, a barn, a well, a hearth and furniture, while struggling with wild animals, Indian encounters, fires and malaria. It is the growing concern over the Indian presence and rumors of a federal government order for white settlers to leave the area that causes Pa to move his family. They pack up again, abandoning the homestead, and head back toward Independence to eventually start anew.

Setting:

The high prairie of eastern Kansas near the Verdigris River, between 1869 and 1871

Point of View:

3rd person (Laura)

Theme:

Pioneer spirit, self-sufficiency, family unity, contact between cultures

Literary Quality:

This book is third in what is considered a series based on the adventures of the Ingalls-Wilder family. The American Library Association recognized Laura Ingalls-Wilder’s contribution to children’s literature by naming an award after her to be given to authors or illustrators who have made similar long-lasting impacts. Little House on the Prairie is considered somewhat of an American classic. It is still in print and has been widely translated, also spawning a television series. It is perhaps the subject matter of a family’s pioneer spirit and nostalgia for a simpler life and time that has inspired such popularity.

Cultural Authenticity:

The portrayals of the Native Americans in this book are often done from a white, imperialist point of view. Several characters believed that they had the right to the land and that the government should continue to displace Indians for white settlers. The encounters that the Ingalls family has with the Indians are often painted with fear, prejudice and naïvety. Indian qualities are undesirable: it is not good to be “brown like an Indian” nor “yell like an Indian,” and the Indians they do meet “smell terrible,” steal and want to attack. Even when the some of the characters discuss Indians in a more diplomatic light, they are depicted as romanticized “noble savages”—like Laura’s “papoose” and Soldat du Chêne as “one good Indian.” There also is little acknowledgement of Native culture, other than mention of abandoned Indian camps, found beads and their dress/appearance.

Audience:

The book was written at a lower reading level and was likely aimed at upper elementary students (grade 3-5), though it could be appropriate as a read-aloud for younger students. The adventure story and the young, spunky protagonist who is sometimes “naughty” could also appeal to young readers. Even though there is a contrast in parent-child interactions between then and now, Laura is not a perfect child and has a wild side. However, I would encourage parents and teachers to read this book critically with children because of some of the problems with cultural authenticity.

Personal Reaction:

I did not read this series as a child (nor did I watch the television series), so I had little attachment to the Little House books, other than these great automaton displays of the Ingalls family they would put up in the mall at Christmas-time. As I read this book for the first time as an adult, I was very uncomfortable with the attitudes toward and portrayals of the Native Americans, especially when the family spoke of their right to the best land. I realize that this was perhaps very realistic and common at the time for white settlers, but I was a bit relieved that I had not been exposed to the book when I was young and more impressionable, since I might not have recognized the “other side” of the story. However, I am glad to have finally experienced Ingalls-Wilder’s work and recognize her contribution to the canon of classic children’s literature. After all, the pioneer spirit that she writes about still sparks the imagination and creates nostalgia for the “good ole days” in many of us.