Somehow, I stumbled upon Louise Erdrich’s Chickadee, a middle grade novel, possibly while I was googling around for information on its real-life namesake, my middle daughter’s favorite bird.* I hadn’t previously realized that Erdrich, who is known for her serious, award-winning books for adults, also writes award-winning books for children. Naturally, I had to check it out.
I downloaded Chickadee without realizing that it’s actually the fourth novel in The Birchbark House Series. The number 4 wasn’t next to the title on Amazon, and the publisher’s references to the series were subtle, at least to someone as sleep-deprived as I’ve been lately:**
Winner of the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction, Chickadee is the first novel of a new arc in the critically acclaimed Birchbark House series by New York Times bestselling author Louise Erdrich.
Twin brothers Chickadee and Makoons have done everything together since they were born—until the unthinkable happens and the brothers are separated.
Chickadee continues the story of one Ojibwe family’s journey through one hundred years in America. (emphasis added)
I must’ve stopped reading after “first novel.” Oh well.
It’s wise to start a series at the beginning, but it isn’t necessary with Chickadee, which features a new character. It’s an ideal Middle Grade book because it’s easy to read, descriptive, and compelling. It also promotes an important message that will resonate with children: “small things have great power.”
The title character, Chickadee, and his identical twin, Makoons, were born prematurely in winter during the 1800s. They were tiny; nobody thought they would survive long after birth, but they defied expectations, thanks to their family, who carried them everywhere and maintained their body temperatures by placing warm stones under their sleeping blankets. Still, Chickadee and Makoons “never [grew] as big and strong as most boys their age.”
Descriptions of Chickadee and Makoons’ premature birth gave me goosebumps. It reminded me of my own twins’ wintry early arrival. Of course, Erdrich’s fictional twins couldn’t have been quite as premature as my real-life former 26 weekers were—we wouldn’t have been a family without modern medicine (a chilling thought)—but there were certainly commonalities, from the dire predictions about their mortality to their inability to maintain their own body temperatures at first. Instead of sleeping on warm rocks, my girls spent their first few months of life in incubators (this is my middle child, my Chickadee):
During our time in the NICU, I certainly learned that “small things have great power.” Thankfully, though, my daughters don’t remember the challenges they’ve overcome. They probably won’t connect to Chickadee and Makoons because of their prematurity.
Instead, they’ll probably connect to them because they are twins.*** My daughters enjoy reading books that feature traits or themes with which they identify, like twinship or hair color, and they also enjoy reading books that feature forms of diversity they don’t often see around them. As I discussed last month in Correcting a Kindergarten Deficit (As Requested By An Almost-First Grader), one of my daughters has already decried her lack of exposure to Native American culture. Erdrich’s novels are one way to fill this void. The Birchbark House Series is destined for their bookshelves.
*Here are a couple of drawings my daughters did of chickadees (see Item #3). By the way, I say “middle daughter,” even though she’s only six minutes younger than her “older” sister. “Chickadee” is actually one of her nicknames.
**My workload is unusually heavy these days. There’s no end in sight.
***For a list of twins in literature, including my own fictional Nora and Aubrey Daley, check out Words for Worms.