Tuesday, January 22, 2013

2013 Contenders: Chickadee, by Louise Erdrich

In order to properly evaluate Chickadee, I have to begin with a confession: I have not read the other books in the series. I recommend them all the time - whenever someone says "Little House," my reflex response is "Birchbark House" - but I had not personally made the acquaintance of Omakayas and family.

So, coming to the book as a Erdrich virgin, I'm left with two conclusions:

1. You don't need to have read the rest of the series to enjoy it. Total standalone.

2. If you haven't, you'll want to.

Quick plot summary: Omakayas, who readers met as a child in The Birchbark House, is now the mother of twin boys, Chickadee and Makoon. When Chickadee is kidnapped, the family must leave the woods of northern Minnesota and venture onto the Great Plains to retrieve him. In the process, their way of life changes forever.

For some reason Chickadee wasn't getting a lot of Newbery buzz early in the season, but it has certainly been lauded. It just won the Scott O'Dell award, and it's been starred in, I believe, six journals (though it only made Horn Book's "best of the year" list). Come to think of it, I have no idea why the initial buzz passed it by.

The hype (is it still hype if it's all very dignified and literary?) is well deserved: Erdrich writes masterfully for children. Her prose has a cozy, timeless quality that's immediately appealing. It's very clear and straightforward, while still packing in lots of evocative descriptions of the natural world. The novel is also deftly structured, interweaving the family's story with the larger narrative of the Anishinabe/Ojibwe. It has both emotional weight and moments of levity (the bumbling kidnappers are some of my favorite comic villains of the year).

Comparing it to some of the other Newbery hopefuls, I think it matches them in several categories. Setting and style are clearly distinguished, as is theme. Some of the characters are more developed than others - I think Splendors and Glooms may surpass it there. Splendors may be more distinguished in plot as well, especially as I found myself slightly confused about the timeline of events in Chickadee at times.

Will the committee agree? Are we totally off base? Is it going to be another Moon Over Manifest year? We'll know in less than a week! In the meantime, I'm going to go track down a copy of The Birchbark House for my daughter and make it our next bedtime read-aloud.


  1. My favorite of the earlier books is, hands down, The Game of Silence.

    I put off reading this for ages because I knew she had jumped into a new generation and I wasn't sure I was happy about that. But once it came up on Heavy Medal I read it and liked it very much, enough to put it on my Newbery list. I was very pleased that it won the Scott O'Dell (which Game of Silence also won).

  2. I've heard other people make similar comments about the jarring generation skip; I wonder if that's part of the reason for the slow build of buzz for Chickadee. I understand her reasoning for doing it (wanting to keep the whole series middle grade), but I always hated that as a child reader. I refused to read Lord of the Rings until I was an adult because I was attached to Bilbo and I didn't want a new upstart hobbit hero.

  3. I really enjoyed this one ... Esme Codell of PlanetEsme has very highly recommended the series for years. It was timeless, and had me waxing nostalgic for the days when I curled into the soft, lilting comfort of the Little House books. Having won the Scott O'Dell Award puts it out of contention for the Newbery, methinks.

    1. Actually it doesn't - Dead End in Norvelt won both last year. So we'll see...