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Sunday, February 16, 2014

Not My Girl, written by Christy Jordan-Fenton & Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, with illustrations by Gabrielle Grimard. Annick Press, 2014. $9.95

"When I left for Aklavik, I was just eight. Now I was ten. In that time I had learned how to add numbers and how to read books. I had perfect table manners and knew when to say my prayers. I could speak English and French. But I no longer knew the words in my own language to tell my mother that I was her girl."

As they did for their first novel about attending a residential school (Fatty Legs, Annick, 2010), Christy Jordan-Fenton and her mother-in-law, Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, have written a companion picture book to make access to the second of her stories (A Stranger at Home, Annick, 2011) easier for a younger audience. I only recently recommended When I Was Eight (Annick, 2013). This is its sequel.

It is equally compelling, and beautiful. Margaret tells her story of returning home after two years at the 'outsiders' school to find that her mother does not even recognize her. Imagine the heartache she feels.  She has forgotten most of the language of her childhood, cannot complete tasks that were once second-nature to her, and her father's dog team no longer recognizes her smell. No one can know the loss felt by children who went away to residential schools except those who experienced it. Margaret and Christy together help us understand what it was like to return to a life forgotten, and to learn to live all over again with family, friends and the community.

The story is told simply, and with clarity. It allows a younger audience to learn the longer story of her second novel. It is written with honor, and with tremendous feeling for the loss she shares with so many other children. I think it makes it clear to each of us that there is a need for us to tell our stories, no matter what they might be. They give a glimpse into the past, and will certainly impact the present and future, we hope.

Gabrielle Grimard illustrates this story with expressive, often sorrowful, images. The wide horizons and glorious northern lights give readers such a sense of place. The warmth of family and community are also there for us to enjoy. The empathy created for Margaret's story comes from Ms. Grimard's skill in sharing the always changing expressions of her characters. Bravo!

The inclusion of a photo of Margaret and her parents (circa 1937) and the heartwarming ending are the icing on the cake and will surely leave listeners content.

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