Review: When I Was Eight by Christy Jordan-Fenton

when i was eight

When I Was Eight by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, illustrated by Gabrielle Grimard

This is a lovely new picture book version of Fatty Legs that will share Olemaun’s story with younger readers than the original chapter book.  It follows Olemaun from her time with her nomadic family through her attending the “outsider’s school.”  There her hair is chopped short and her warm parka is replaced with thin and scratchy clothing.  Her name is even changed to Margaret.  Margaret wants most to learn to read, but the school is much more interested in getting the children to work hard rather than teaching them.  Margaret has a difficult relationship with one nun in particular who makes a point of humiliating her regularly.  In the end though, Margaret does learn to read all on her own.

This is a story that works really well as a picture book.  I really enjoyed both Fatty Legs and A Stranger at Home that were chapter books, but this younger version simplifies the story and keeps its quiet power.  As with the earlier books, I remain in awe at the strength that it took for Margaret to survive in the school and also the courage it takes to keep on telling her story.

Grimard’s illustrations echo the beauty of the Arctic but also capture the dullness and darkness of the school.  The nun character radiates scorn and anger on every page she appears in.  Margaret is shown usually isolated, but also as radiant in her resiliency.

A powerful look at residential schools on Native populations, this picture book version belongs in most libraries.  Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from digital galley received from Netgalley and Annick Press.