Olemaun and Alice

When I Was Eight

Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton

Art by Gabrielle Grimard

Published in 2013 by Annick Press

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The Story: Olemaun, an Inuit girl, longs to go to school so she can learn to read the outsiders’ books, especially the book about Alice that her sister Rosie reads. Olemaun begs her father to take her to the outsiders’ school until he reluctantly lets her. But school is nothing like Olemuan imagined. A black-cloaked nun cuts off her long hair, strips away her warm parka, and takes away her Inuit name, and calls Olemaun instead Margaret. For weeks Margaret does nothing but chores: scrubbing the floors, washing the walls, dishes, and laundry. Margaret is no closer to being able to read, so she takes her education on herself and teaches herself to read. One day, intended to shame Margaret, a nun throws a large book towards Margaret and tells her to read, and Margaret “confidently sliced through the words without a single moment of hesitation.” Margaret feels powerful from this victory and realizes she is “Olemaun, conqueror of evil, reader of books. . . I finally knew this, like I knew many things, because now I could read.”

What Wallace and I Think: This is a picturebook about Canadian residential schools. Let that sink in. I don’t remember being taught about residential schools when I was in school. It may have been mentioned, but there wasn’t any emphasis to make it stick in my memory, and I think this was intentional. Why? Because Canada, our nation, is embarrassed, ashamed, by what was done to Indigenous children in these schools. And what do we do when we’re embarrassed about something? We don’t talk about it, because talking makes the knot in our stomach, lets others know about that thing we’re embarrassed about, that we don’t want other people to know about. It makes us, the person who is embarrassed, uncomfortable.

But those like the Fentons are telling their own stories, so that what was done is not ignored and not forgotten. The Fentons do this by writing a picturebook, to start education about this dark history young. When I Was Eight is the true story of the Margaret Fenton’s experience at residential schools, and she has dedicate the book to “the Indian Residential School survivors who haven’t yet found their voices.” And perhaps it may help those to find their voices if what happened to them wasn’t ignored, and this picturebook is a step is solving this ignorance.

So as you can probably already guess, I think this is an important picturebook that needs to be read to children. It will take many children outside their own lived experience and help to develop their empathetic sensibilities, and will give voice to many children whose own family members are still coping with what was done to them in residential schools.

I could recommend this book being read to children as young as six or seven (grade one age).