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Books for Orange Shirt Day

Books to connect younger readers with the tragic legacy of Canada's residential schools.

Our Children's Librarian columnist, Julie Booker, brings us a new view from the stacks every month.


Book Cover The Orange Shirt Story

Residential Schools are often talked about beginning with the study of Indigenous Peoples in the Grade 3 social studies curriculum, but awareness can begin even earlier. These texts, from preschool to teens, address some of the harsh issues—and are especially meaningful in connection with Orange Shirt Day on September 30.


The Orange Shirt Story, by Phyllis Webstad, illustrated by Brock Nicol, is a true story. Six-year-old Phyllis was looking forward to going to the same school as her cousins. She even had a new orange shirt for the occasion, but the nuns promptly removed it, and then cut off her hair. The nuns showed no empathy—a poignant illustration shows Phyllis crying, alone, in her bed at night. One nice teacher was her only solace. Luckily, Phyllis only had to endure one year away at school and never went back. There’s a section at the back of the book explaining the meaning of Orange Shirt Day. (Grade 3+)


Book Cover Fatty Legs

Fatty Legs, by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, illustrated by Liz Amini-Holmes, is a good novel-length read aloud for Grades 3 and up. Olemaun (Pokiak-Fenton’s Inuvialuktun name) begs her father to be allowed to go to school so she can learn to read. Her father, having gone to residential school himself, resists as much as he can, and then finally gives in. At school. Olemaun is renamed Margaret and is made to do chores from morning until night. When she finally gets into a classroom, she suffers humiliation at the hands of a nun who forces Margaret wear red stockings that make her look like a clown. Margaret gets her own back, and finds an ally in a nice nun. Enduring two years at school makes Margaret tough, moulding her into a hard-working girl who can read.


Book Cover When I was Eight

When I was Eight, by Christy Jordan-Fention and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, with illustrations by Gabrielle Grimard, is the picture book version of Fatty Legs. Amidst all the anger and being bullied, Margaret’s single-mindedness allows her to learn to read. A story of victimization ends in a message of empowerment. (Grade 1+)


Book Cover A Stranger at Home

A Stranger at Home is the sequel to Fatty Legs, opening with Margaret, age 10, reuniting with her family. Her mother sees her short bob, her hardened look, her two inches in gained height, now skinny, and says: “Not my daughter.” This story is all about Margret’s slow reclaiming of her old self. From trying to stomach eating muktuk (whale blubber) to wearing the soft kamik (footwear) which now hurt her feet, to being called an Outsider by her best friend. She can’t understand when people speak to her; the other kids exclude her from playing. Even the dogs don’t like her new smell. She’s worried her family will go to hell because they refuse to pray before meals. Her father helps her to relearn the language and buys her a dog sled. Margaret begins to teach her mother to read. The whole family moves to town and must adapt to new ways. All the while, Margaret empathizes with stranger whom call the Du-bil-ak (devil) who traps furs and stays on the fringe of the community. The story’s ending is a difficult one. Her father asks her to accompany her two younger siblings to school, which she does with newfound strength and sense of identity. Both books really bring home the experience, and Olemaun’s scrapbook of photos at the back help illustrate key parts of the story.


Book Cover Not My Girl

Not My Girl, by Christy Jordan-Fention and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, illustrations by Gabrielle Grimard, is the picture book sequel to A Stranger at Home. In this story, Margaret takes a pup away from its mother for a day and realizes she has put it in danger by denying its mother’s milk—a metaphor for what has happened to her in her own family. Eventually, Margaret's sense of belonging comes through a gift from her father—her very own dogsled. (Grade 1+)


Book Cover I Am Not A Number

I Am Not A Number, by Jenny Kay Dupuis and Kathy Kacer, illustrated by Gillian Newland, does not begin with kids excitedly anticipating school. It doesn’t sugar coat the racism, punishment and mistreatment at residential schools, beginning with the Indian agent who collects Mary Ann and her siblings. After separating Mary Ann from her brothers, Sister Mary says, “Make sure to scrub all the brown off.” This book explains what a haircut means to Mary Ann—Indigenous people only cut their hair as a ritual when someone died. Mary Ann has her hands burned as punishment for speaking Ojibwe. Fortunately, their father hides them the following autumn when the agent comes back. The book includes some more information included about residential schools. (Grade 3)


Book Cover When We Were Alone

When We Were Alone, by David A. Robertson and Julie Fleck, is a poignant simple text of a Nokom telling her granddaughter about her residential school experiences. She explains why she always wears colourful flowers, why her braid is so long, why she speaks Cree and why she spends time with her brother…all of this to regain what was lost. During school, when they were alone, the children would roll in the fall leaves, covering their drab clothes. They would weave blades of grass into their shorn hair, and hold hands with their siblings in secret. (Kindergarten +)


Book Cover You Hold Me Up

You Hold Me Up, by Monique Gray Smith, illustrated by Danielle Daniel, is a picture book about reconciliation for children as young as preschoolers. The simple text is powerful: “You hold me up when you are kind…when you learn with me…You hold me up. I hold you up. We hold each other up.”


Book Cover Speaking Our Truth

Speaking Our Truth, by Monique Gray Smith, has the appealing look of a friendly textbook. This is a powerful read, especially for Grade 6 and up. The organization of the book is well-thought out, beginning with Gray talking directly to the reader about the journey of reconciliation—what it is, and how to begin with an open mind and heart, and what it means to be a witness. She uses facts, photos, and key figures in the reconciliation process, interspersed with higher level questions that invite the reader to relate and reflect. For instance, halfway through the book, she asks the reader to complete the sentences: “I knew (before)…now I know…” She addresses the intergenerational effects of residential schools—how kids in residential schools never learned how to parent, so a cycle of abuse and neglect is perpetuated. The final chapter is devoted to taking action, and includes amazing resources including The Kairos Blanket Exercise and Red Man Laughing podcasts. This book is honest, yet full of hope, and a great resource that leads teachers and students by the hand in understanding the history of Indigenous people in Canada.


Book Cover Stolen Words

Stolen Words, by Melanie Florence, illustrated by Gabrielle Grimard begins: “How do you say grandfather in Cree?” A grandpa explains how he lost his Cree language. Beautiful writing accompanies illustrations of the Raven as a symbol throughout the story, for example: “the granddaughter’s “glossy braids danced against her shoulders…black as a raven’s wings.” The Cree language appears as a bird that was caged by the residential school teacher. When the granddaughter finds a book of Cree in the library, the words her grandfather had forgotten begin to fly off the pages. (Grade 3+)


Book Cover Arctic Stories

For Kindergarten and up, Arctic Stories, by Michael Arvaarluk Kusugak, illustrated by Vladyana Langer Krykorka, includes a story called “Agatha Goes to School.” Picked up by a sea plane at the age of 6, Agatha is taken to a Catholic mission. It’s an unhappy time except for learning to ski and skate, watching the boys put water on the bottom of their moccasins to slide down icy hills. Or when Father Fafard, who loves showing off his skating skills to the children, falls through the ice, and Agatha saves him with her skis. There’s an afterword by the author who talks about many nuns and priests being good people; Father Fafard “has surely gone to heaven.”


Book Cover Kookum's Red SHoes

A Wizard of Oz theme runs through Kookum’s Red Shoes, by Peter Eyvindson. Kookum remembers begging her parents to buy her shiny red shoes after seeing the famous Oz movie. She has a happy childhood until a truck arrives to take her to the residential school—she doesn’t even have time to put her red shoes on. But it doesn’t matter. The nuns immediately strip the children of their clothes, put them in uniforms, cut their hair, and force them to pray and speak English. Each day is the same—school, chores, sleep. When she returns home, her red shoes no longer fit. Today, Kookum keeps an eye out on her visits to the local school, watching for children who need some extra attention, just as she did long ago. There’s a copy of the government’s apology in 2008 to residential school survivors at the end of the book. (Grade 3+)


Book Cover Shi Shi Etko

Nicola I. Campbell has written two books, illustrated by Kim LaFave, that are appropriate for Grades 1 and up. In Shi-Shi-Etko, the main character collects objects to take with her to the residential school—sprigs of hemlock, cedar, and kinnikinnick. In the sequel, Shin-Chi's Canoe, Shi-Shi’s grandmother cuts off her braids in anticipation of what will happen at school. The reader follows Shi-Shi and her brother through the grim life of chores, prayers, lack of food, and rejection of native language and names. There’s a postscript with some facts for curious readers.


Book Cover Missing Nimamam

For Grades 4 and up, Missing Nimama, by Melanie Florence, illustrated by Francois Thisdale, is a story about missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada. As the afterword says: “The violence inflicted on Aboriginal women…can be traced back to the period of colonization.” This story is written in two voices, one of the little girl, Kateri, who has lost her mother. The second is the voice of the fictional missing woman watching Kateri from afar, being raised by her grandmother. It spans the girl’s life, starting as a school girl trying to come to terms with her “lost” mother, getting married, having a baby of her own, and finally going to a protest to support awareness of missing Indigenous women. The profound sadness in this book is punctuated by the afterword, with the statistics and the number of years it has taken for the government to make the issue a priority.


Book Cover As Long as the Rivers Flow

A longer text for grades Grade 4 and up, As Long as the Rivers Flow, by Larry Loyie, is the story of the author’s last summer with his Cree community before going to residential school—camping, hunting, nurturing an owl, spending time with his grandmother (who shot one of the largest grizzlies in North America). The epilogue gives a snapshot of Larry's history, including his feelings of displacement after four years at school. He drifted through various jobs, farming and logging, until teaching himself to read and becoming a writer.


Book Cover Sugar Falls

Teen graphic novel, Sugar Falls, by David Alexander Robertson, illustrated by Scott B. Henderson, does not shy away from difficult issues, including sexual abuse. A boy interviews his friend’s kokum, a residential school survivor. Based on one woman’s true story, including the violent “taking” as a child, the beatings for speaking Cree, for not transcribing the bible properly in Latin and for her imperfect penmanship. One night her friend runs away and drowns. Sexual abuse is depicted by the priest taking girls out of bed and making them sit on his lap. This book a difficult read, but with a seed of hope at the end. The protagonist uses her father’s words to gain strength and endure her time in the school, “to listen with three ears, including the sound of the drum of beating hearts in unison.”


On her first day as teacher-librarian, Julie Booker was asked by a five-year-old if that was her real name. She's felt at home in libraries since her inaugural job as a Page in the Toronto Public Library. She is the author of Up Up Up, a book of short stories published by House of Anansi Press.







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