These three recent picture books by Indigenous authors make the Canadian residential school experience and its continuing ramifications easier for children to understand.
When We Were Alone by David Alexander Robertson and Julie Flett
Stunning, powerful, sensitive and poetic. Nehiyawak (Cree) vocabulary. Repeating question and answer format between a child and her grandmother: "Nokom, why do you wear your hair so long?" Then the grandmother gently explains about having her hair cut when she was a child at residential school, and so on. Gorgeous collage artwork by the incomparable Julie Flett. Governor General Award winner. Kindergarten to Grade 3.
I Am Not a Number by Jenny Kay Dupuis, Kathy Kacer and Gillian Newland
A poignant story with longer text, based on the experiences of Dupuis' Anishinaabe grandmother, Irene Couchie, of Nipissing First Nation in Ontario. At Spanish Indian Residential School, students were referred to only by numbers. Some of the difficult topics directly addressed in this picture book for older children include the physical abuse of students at school and the fact that parents could be jailed if they tried to keep their children at home. Grade 3 to 6.
"Back home, long hair was a source of pride. We cut it when we lost a loved one. Now it felt as if a part of me was dying with every strand that fell."
You Hold Me Up by Monique Gray Smith and Danielle Daniel
Dedicated to the Aboriginal Head Start program, this deals with the intergenerational impact of residential schools. It's a teaching message for the very young - age 3 and under - and their caregivers.
From the author's note: "With this book, we are embarking on a journey of healing and reconciliation. I wrote it to remind us of our common humanity and the importance of holding each other up with respect and dignity. I hope it is a foundational book for our littlest citizens."
It's never too early to learn about building relationships and fostering empathy. Simple, straightforward, with brightly-coloured art portraying Indigenous people of all ages.
"You hold me up when you play with me, when you laugh with me, when you sing with me. You hold me up. I hold you up. We hold each other up."