By Celeste Trimble and Kristen Suagee-Beauduy
When I Was Eight by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret-Olemaun Pokiak-Fenton (Inuvialuit) tells the true story of Margaret Pokiak-Fenton’s experiences at an Indian Residential School in Aklavik, in what is now known as Canada. Olemaun’s parents do not want her to attend the school away from her home of Banks Island, but Olemaun longs to learn to read like her older sister. When she convinces her parents and begins attending the school, the nuns try to humiliate and shame her in many ways. Margaret-Olemaun was determined to learn to read and prove to the nuns that she was a strong and capable student, and she did.
This picturebook was written with middle to upper elementary students in mind. Margaret-Ouleman’s story was also told in the book for younger readers, Not My Girl, and the books for middle level readers, Fatty Legs and A Stranger at Home.
CELESTE: There are many similarities in the picturebooks about residential schooling that we have read so far because governments and churches were working out of the same genocidal playbook of cutting hair, physical abuse, stripping of language and culture and names, and shaming. I’m curious, also, about the ways the books are different.
In this text, the child, Margaret-Olemaun really wants to attend the school, because she wants to learn to read like her sister. Her father did not want her to attend the school. Margaret-Olemaun says, “He knew things about the school that I did not”. And although he does not want her there, “He reluctantly left me at their school”. For a reader who is informed about the horrors of residential school, this is difficult to read. I don’t want her parents to let her go! I want them to tell her the things they know about the schools, so that she herself does not want to go.
But many young readers are not informed of this history, so I wonder how this story is perceived. Does the child reader wonder why her parents don’t want her to attend? Are they able to make these connections once it is apparent the abuses that Margaret-Olemaun is experiencing? Is this younger version of the story of Fatty Legs too happy? Triumphant in the end when she proves the nun wrong? I have many complex questions about this story.
Margaret passed away very recently, and I am so glad I had the chance to meet her and Christy at USBBY (United States Board on Books for Young People) in Seattle in 2017. I had similar questions then, but it didn’t seem appropriate to ask them. I was just grateful that she was telling her story.
KRISTEN: That’s a good question to be asking and it makes me think of the resiliency we were celebrating in the first book, When We Were Alone. Like with my grandfather, I asked him what boarding school was like and he only wanted to talk about the good things, like how he loved being on an all-Native football team going up against white schools. I think children’s stories often end on a positive note and I think Native storytellers should be allowed to do that if they want to. Maybe to her, achieving English literacy was worth what Margaret endured.
CELESTE: I think it is a very fine line. There must be a multitude of stories to represent any history or community because there are and were a multitude of lived realities and different perspectives. No one book can tell an entire history. However, because this topic is often not taught in schools in the United States, and because children don’t necessarily have access to multiple texts about Indigenous kids’ experiences of residential schools, sometimes all a child will read is one book on a topic, if any. I don’t want a child to walk away from this text thinking residential schools in general was a good thing because it taught Native kids to read, despite the knowledge that some children, like Margaret-Olemaun, might have weighed her options and decided the sacrifices were worth it. It’s a dangerous story in that way.
Perhaps part of my question regarding this book is about this particular version of the story. Fatty Legs is this same story written for middle level readers and because of this it contains more details, and tells a fuller story, one that might answer some of the young reader’s questions better. I haven’t read it for some time, but I need to re-read it with this in mind. Does this story need the greater detail and length of the book in order to engage with the young reader on a deeper and more nuanced level? I think so.
There’s another book about residential schools that has two different levels, but the levels are much closer than Fatty Legs and When I Was Eight. Phillis Webstad’s Orange Shirt is a slightly more abbreviated version of The Orange Shirt Story, both written by Phillis Webstad and Illustrated by Brock Nicol. They tell the story of the idea behind Orange Shirt Day, a day of remembrance and healing for residential school survivors.
KRISTEN: You’re right about it being dangerous. I wouldn’t want kids to finish When I Was Eight thinking boarding schools were good because they taught Native kids how to read either. But aren’t kids also capable of processing that the school was rotten and Margaret never gave up on her goal? This isn’t the kind of book I would just give a child to read—I would want to sit down and talk about it together.
I also don’t want anyone to think that there is a “right way” for a Native author to write a children’s book about residential schools. An author adding in front and/or backmatter or creating different versions of the same book for different audiences is awesome, but it is everyone’s responsibility to learn about Indigenous history in the United States and Canada.
Title: When I Was Eight
Author: Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret-Olemaun Pokiak-Fenton
Illustrator: Gabrielle Grimard
Publisher: Annick Press
PubDate: Febuary 1st, 2013
Throughout August 2021, Celeste Trimble and Kristen Suagee-Beauduy discuss four recently published picturebooks about indigenous residential schooling in Canada. Check back each Wednesday to follow the conversation!