Based on the true story of the author’s grandmother, this picture book captures the experience of First Nations people in Canada being sent to boarding schools. Under threat of fines and jail time, First Nation parents were forced to give their children up to the government. When Irene is taken to her new home, she tries to never forget her real home, her parents and their way of life. Irene is called only by a number at the school and told to scrub the brown off of her skin. Her hair is cut off. She is punished when she speaks her native language by a nun burning her hands. Irene is eventually allowed to return home for the summer, where she continues to have nightmares of her time at school. Finally, her parents decide to hide the children rather than sending them back.
This is not a picture book for preschoolers, rather it is ideal for elementary-aged children closer in age to 8-year-old Irene in the story. The horrific treatment of First Nation children is shown with real clarity. The use of Irene’s own voice to tell the story makes it personal and much more painful. While there is a lot of text on the pages, the book reads well and the text is straightforward and necessary to explain the loss of culture and the darkness of the boarding schools.
The illustrations by Newland are almost like painted photographs. They show the family losing their children, the stern nuns, and the punishment scene is carefully captured afterwards in terms of pain and emotion rather than depicting the punishment itself. There is a feeling of constraint and loss in the images of the boarding school and then freedom when the children return home.
A powerful look at Canadian history and First Nation children, this book would work well paired with When I Was Eight by Christy Jordan-Fenton. Appropriate for ages 7-10.
Reviewed from library copy.