There are moments in our collective history that we would rather forget happened, but that we must never forget and never allow to happen again. Whether the extermination of Jews in Europe, the internment of Japanese Americans in the United States, the slave trade that took so many people from Africa, or the Indian Residential School program in Canada.
This last item is one that many of us don’t even know existed, but it was a program that attempted to assimilate native children into Euro-Canadian culture for over a century. Indigenous children were taken from their homes, placed into special residential schools, treated poorly, and forbidden to speak their own native language of Cree. In the last twenty years, former students have pressed for recognition and restitution. There are now two books from Second Story Press that deal with this subject, albeit in very different ways.
The first book is I Am Not a Number, by Jenny Kay Dupuis and Kathy Kacer (September 2016). This powerful book is told from the perspective of 8 year old Irene who gets removed from her family home and sent to a residential school. The nuns at the school do their best to strip Irene’s culture from her – from her name to the way she speaks and looks. The title of the book refers to the fact that she is given a number to go by instead of her name. This book is a challenging read and a complex topic, but excellent for those in 3-6 grade. It also includes an excellent section in the back of the book to give more information on the residential school. The book was based on the life of Dupuis’ grandmother’s experiences.
The second book is aimed at a younger audience and focuses more on the lasting impact of the schools rather than the actual experience of being in the school. Stolen Words (September 2017), by Melanie Florence, focuses on the relationship between a little girl and her grandfather. When she asks him how to say grandfather in their native language of Cree, he sadly tells her that he doesn’t remember, that he “lost” his words a long time ago. He then explains to her how when he was a child he was taken away to a school, spoke to them in “words we did not know,” and if punished them for using Cree words. Illustrator Gabrielle Grimard did a mesmerizing job of illustrating the book, especially depicting how it felt like their voices were whisked away from them. The pain of what the grandfather went through is palpable, and there is beauty in the child helping him regain his language and share in their cultural history.
These two books are excellent and show how the same part of history can be shown through a variety of lenses and aimed at different audiences. My older daughter was very moved by I am Not a Number and I can easily see how these books could be used in conjunction with each other. Here in the US we don’t get a ton of books on Canadian history, and while this is a hard topic, it also shows a lot of common bonds that many communities have had to deal with. There is a fear in the unknown and things that are different, but through stories like this, we can also see how special all of our individual cultures and histories are.
Every Wednesday I try to post a non-fiction picture book as part of the Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge hosted by Kid Lit Frenzy. There are truly so many amazing nonfiction picture books being published these days, it can be hard to contain myself sometimes. Make sure to check out Kid Lit Frenzy and the linked blogs to find some more fabulous books!