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Sunday, February 2, 2014

When I Was Eight, written by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, with illustrations by Gabrielle Grimard. Annick Press, 2013. $9.95 ages 8 and up

"Every day for weeks,  we woke early for chores. Instead of sitting in desks, we scrubbed the floor beneath them. We washed walls and dishes and laundry, and then we went to church and  kneeled on our already aching knees to clean our souls. I worked hard, but it brought me no closer to being able to read."

Olemaun pesters her father for days, and weeks, and months to let her go to the outsider's school. Her dearest wish is to learn to read as her sister did. Finally, against his better judgement, he says yes. She is elated, and eager to learn.

Olemaun does not know what her father knows; she has no idea what life will be like away from her family, her Arctic home and all of her friends. When she arrives at the residential school, her life changes. She no longer has her own clothes, her given name, her language or even her braids. She is treated abominably by one of the nuns and made to wear red stockings, rather than the grey ones that the other girls wear. All that she has that is hers is a copy of Alice in Wonderland. Luckily, the plucky Alice is just the kind of person Olemaun wants to be. She takes her cues from her storybook hero, proving herself to be strong and stubborn in the face of horrid treatment. She learns to read, despite the many obstacles.

This excellent picture book, written as a companion to the longer version of it called Fatty Legs (Annick, 2010), is a powerful way to introduce the residential school experience to younger readers. It is moving, scary, and necessary if we are to understand the loss of identity and culture that so many First Nations children and their families experienced.  Olemaun is a worthy narrator whose fear, sadness, strength and joy shine through in the watercolor images created by Gabrielle Grimard.

Her love of stories, and her need to read sustain her in very trying times:

"I ran to my bed and opened my book. I stared at the letters, holding back my tears, until those letters became words, which grew into a familiar story. I could almost hear my sister's voice reading about the cruel queen, and I let the story carry me far away from the laughter."

If you are a reader, you know exactly how Olemaun is able to take herself away from the hurt of her very real world, and find comfort within the pages of a book:

"I felt a great happiness inside that I dared not show. I quietly took my seat. I was Olemaun, conqueror of evil, reader of books. I was a girl who traveled to a strange and faraway land to stand against a tyrant, like Alice. And like Alice, I was brave, clever and as unyielding as the strong stone that sharpens an ulu."

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