Provided by the publisher for review through NetGalley. All opinions are my own.
Yesterday I reviewed Red Kite, Blue Kite, a fiction picture book about a boy's experience in the Cultural Revolution in China. Today's book is nonfiction, but it too tackles a horrible part of history: residential schools in Canada.
Olemaun is an Inuit girl of great resilience who longs to read. She obsesses over the stories brought home from residential school by her older sister Rosie. She convinces her father to let her go to the school too and reluctantly he lets her go. But school is much harsher than she expected. She is stripped of her name, her language, and her hair, but she keeps her self worth.
Her one goal is to read, but first she must learn English, and prove to her sadistic teachers that they should teach her. They give her extra chores, stand her in the corner, and treat her terribly. This all culminates when she is given red socks that stand out and encourage the other kids to call her Fatty Legs. But Olemaun is as stubborn as the sharpening rock she is named after. Does she have the gumption to shut out the offending voices and achieve her goal to read?
When I Was Eight is a younger version of 2010's USBBY Outstanding International Book, Fatty Legs. The story of Margaret Pokiak-Fenton's time in a residential school is more detailed in the middle grade novel, but this picture book has the same message of the triumph of the individual no matter the circumstances.
Children just learning to read will relate to Olemaun's drive. I hope they are also grateful for the fact that they can learn while living at home, with their own names and languages, and hopefully without abuse. It is so important for Canadian children to learn about the residential school system and the attitudes that allowed this to happen to first nations children, so we don't repeat this with other children. The Fentons sharing their story gives a voice to the children who can't speak, and the least we can do is listen to their stories.