The Birchbark House, Birchbark Books, and the Power of Narrative by Jane A. G. Kise
Tucked into a side street near Lake of the Isles in Minneapolis is Birchbark Books, an independent store owned by 2012 National Book Award Winner Louise Erdrich and her sister Heide Erdrich. With its globe lights from an old school house, the original flooring rescued from five layers of linoleum and plywood, the loft and “Hobbit Hole” for children to curl up in with a book, the store is heaven for serious readers.
My out-of-town guests are almost certain to be treated to coffee at the adjacent cafe and then a browse around Birchbark’s table of recommended titles, a rather dangerous spot for bibliophiles easily tempted to add to their collections. There are hand-written notes from staff, neighbors, and from Louise herself! In how many bookstores will you find suggestions from award-winning authors?
Then there’s the unique section of Native American titles. Louise is an enrolled Turtle Mountain Chippewa and the store is a hub for Native intellectual life. Manager Susan White, who is seldom absent, seems to have read every title and knows exactly which one might inspire you.
Two books that she handed me are key, I think, to current conversations about what our children should be reading and writing in school. The first is Erdrich’s The Birchbark House, which was a National Book Award Finalist. Set by Lake Superior, the book invites readers to learn about the family life, customs, values, struggles and history of a Native American tribe. Through the delightful young girl Omakayas and her family, Louise shows, rather than tells, the reader about Native life. The fourth book in the series, Chickadee, was released this fall.
Readers follow Omakyas through a turn of seasons filled with comic, tragic, thoughtful and intriguing incidences, all can’t-stop-turning-the-pages stories that make you wonder how you might have fit in as a child. Imagine the touch and feel and odors of working and scraping a moose hide, rubbing in the animal’s own brains, until it is supple and smooth enough for moccasins. Omakayas dreads the task until the day she escapes it, only to find herself face-to-face with a bear. Her focused efforts when she returns to that stinky hide are so superior that her father rewards her with her very own hide scraper! In her effort to hide her disappointment over not getting a shiny new hair ribbon like the one her sister receives, Omakayas stares at the moccasins made from her moose hide—and realizes that she is proud of all that icky, hard work.
But The Birchbark House isn’t the kind of heavy-handed moral or teaching tale children dread. Instead, the events and characters engage you completely. You have to consciously think about similarities and differences between cultures to grasp what you might learn, just as Omakayas learns from the stories and examples of her elders. Higher-level thinking, anyone?
Which brings me to a second title, one that makes my head spin as I think about what might happen to narratives and narrative writing if the Common Core State Standards aren’t implemented in a balanced way. The Standards, adopted now by 46 states as a guideline for curriculum in grades K-12, emphasize nonfiction, informational texts, and argumentative, evidence-based writing. Listen to the words of Joseph Bruchac from Our Stories Remember:
What is the place and purpose of stories? What is their proper use? Stories were never “just a story,” in the sense of being merely entertainment. They were and remain a powerful tool for teaching. Lesson stories were used by every American Indian nation as a way of socializing the young and strengthening the values of their tribal nation for both young and old (p. 35)
As I read books such as The Birchbark House and Our Stories Remember, I’m reminded that nonfiction isn’t the only source of information, nor is evidence-based writing the only way to teach and persuade. If our schools swing too far in the new direction, instead of teaching fiction and nonfiction, narrative and persuasive writing, we run two risks:
- We’ll be sending a message that stories are unimportant, a message that run counter to many cultures, including what I’ve learned about many Native American cultures through books such as these.
- We’ll be denying children a chance to learn through the powerful truth of story. These books, for example, might suggest that Native Americans would heartily approve of non-Native children learning about their culture from volumes such as The Birchbark House rather than from history books and other informational texts.
I could go on—and probably will in my own blog—but I hope that these titles give my fellow nerdy teachers some fodder for pushing back at any hint that great fiction and narrative writing are of lesser value than great nonfiction and argumentative writing!
Jane A. G. Kise, Ed.D., is an author and education consultant based in Minneapolis. You can find her at www.janekise.com, and also on Twitter @JaneKise. Jane reads just about anything and everything and has a huge to-read pile, thanks to Birchbark Books and library sales. She’s at work on her 25th nonfiction book, on moving beyond the polarizing arguments in education, and hopes to finally write a fictional tale in the near future.