20 Aug / When I Was Eight by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, illustrated by Gabrielle Grimard
Although she “knew many things when [she] was eight,” what Olemaun didn’t know was “how to read the outsiders’ books. It was not enough to hear them from my older sister, Rosie. I longed to read them for myself.” Against her father’s wishes – “[h]e knew things about the school that I did not” – the determined Inuit girl’s desire for literacy takes her far from her family to be educated by nuns.
Her long braids are shorn and her warm traditional parka is replaced by clothing impractical for the harsh temperatures. Even her name is taken from her and she must answer only to the unfamiliar ‘Margaret.’ She labors through exhausting chores – floors, dishes, laundry – instead of learning letters. One cruel nun takes every opportunity to add misery to Margaret’s life, yet still she perseveres: “I used every task as an opportunity to learn new words. I studied each letter of the alphabet before wiping it from the board, I looked at the labels on cleaning supplies and sounded out the words.”
She survives being locked in the dark basement, her classmates’ bullying, and eventually stands up against the nun’s continuous humiliations. Reading gives her the unstoppable power to be “Olemaun, conqueror of evil, reader of books … who traveled to a strange and faraway land to stand against a tyrant.” Indeed, she knew many things, “because now [she] could read.”
When I Was Eight is the latest rendition of the real life of Margaret Pokiak-Fenton; Eight is the simplified picture-book adaptation of Pokiak-Fenton’s Fatty Legs, the first half of her award-winning, double-volume memoir (written with daughter-in-law Christy Jordan-Fenton) which is more suitable for a middle-grade/young adult audience. Pokiak-Fenton’s unwavering tenacity to learn to read is especially highlighted here, inspiring and encouraging fluency for younger readers-in-training. Artist Garbiele Grimard‘s open, revealing expressions are especially effective, sharing Olemaun’s fears and reveling in her hard-won triumphs. Here’s to discovering the unlimited power of reading together …