April 28, 2013

When I Was Eight

by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton
Illustrated by Gabrielle Grimard
Annick Press
32 pp.
Ages 6-9
February, 2013

The retelling of a story in a different format rarely amounts to anything distinctive.  Whether in graphic format or picture book or movie, many stories are just abridged versions or subsets of the original or greater work.  When I Was Eight is that one story that is not only distinctive, it is exceptional. 

A picture book version of Margaret Pokiak-Fenton's true story of her experiences at residential school, originally told in Fatty Legs (Annick, 2010), When I Was Eight is an even more powerful read due to its emphasis on concise, affective text coupled with Gabrielle Grimard's quietly unpretentious artwork.

Regardless of her father's reluctance to deliver her to the residential school, Olemaun's desire to read convinces him of the value of sending her away for additional schooling.  There Olemaun is converted outwardly into Margaret, the girl with short hair who wears the required tunics and wool stockings and labours at her cleaning chores.  But by making it clear that she believes she should be learning to read, Margaret incurs the wrath of one mean-spirited nun whose desire to humiliate and scare the young girl both torments and challenges her. 

The stories of the residential schools are involved and harrowing, and Margaret's tale is not any different.  What is unique is her passionate desire to learn to read which consequently points her towards the school.  In fact, she learns to read in spite of the schooling and treatment she endures there.  Without her strong character and sense of justice, Margaret may have taken nothing from the residential school experience except abuse and loss of self.  Instead, Olemaun keeps with her the valuable learning both pre- and post-schooling, and uses it to help her reconfigure herself so that she is less a stranger at home than many other children from the school.  While her return to Banks Island as an awkward local is addressed in A Stranger at Home (Annick, 2011), the sequel to Fatty Legs and When I Was Eight, Oleamun/Margaret's struggle and ability to manage her own life has her returning to her homeland as a reader, fulfilling her foremost desire.

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