“Meta” picture books have their place, cute bunnies, princesses and dragons in picture books have their place too. But there’s no denying the power of a non-fiction narrative to teach. I Am Not a Number teaches about an often overlooked and ignored part of the history of Native peoples in the Americas; the history of boarding/residential schools and the pain associated with settler colonialism.
In I Am Not a Number, Anishinaabe/Ojibway (Nipissing First Nation) author and educator Dr. Jenny Kay Dupuis shares her grandmother’s story. With the help of author Kathy Kacer, Dupuis takes a tough and emotional subject and creates a learning tool. This book can also help First Nations children and families with healing and bringing forward stories of trauma. The emotional control and abuse afflicted upon children by Christian missionaries and the government has had lasting effects on First Nations communities. Some of the more well known examples of detrimental residential boarding school systems are in Australia, Canada and the United States. Here in the United States, Capt. Richard H. Pratt, founder of the Carlisle School, said that instead of killing “The Indian” one must “kill the Indian in him, and save the man.” Generations of Indigenous people around the world have suffered emotional trauma under states determined to “civilize” them.
I Am Not a Number begins on the Nipissing Reserve Number 10 in Ontario, Canada and follows young Irene as she’s forced to leave her home with two of her bothers. The Indian agent represents the law and Irene’s parents must send their children to residential school with him. Irene doesn’t know what awaits her but holds her mother’s words “Never forget who you are!” close. As the title of the book suggests, the children are stripped of the basic right of a name at the school; numbers are what the nuns refer to them by. They’re also beaten (and worse) for speaking their language. I Am Not a Number does not shy away from the gritty details of abuse in residential schools. This transparency is necessary for telling these stories. When summer finally comes, Irene and her brothers are allowed to go home for a while and the familiarity of their food, land and family are like a balm. Even speaking her language feel strange, though, and she suffers nightmares. Irene’s parents make the decision to fight to keep their children, no matter the consequences!
I’m glad for the back ground information at the end of the book about Canadian residential schools and especially Jenny Kay Dupuis’ afterword about her grandmother, Irene Couchie Dupuis. In addition to powerful storytelling, this book has moving and beautiful illustrations. Using a palette of grays, browns and greens, Gillian Newland brings Irene’s experience (and strength) to life for the reader. The images in this book don’t directly portray physical abuse but they show the aftermath in fearful, stunned and pained expressions. She also does a great job of portraying love; my favorite spread is of Irene and her father, forehead to forehead, eyes locked and comforting. Relieved to be reunited.
This is an important book that I hope you’ll take the time to experience with your children. Children’s non-fiction picture books are powerful and necessary for teaching history, empathy and respect. Thanks for sharing your grandmother’s story, Jenny Kay Dupuis!
Recommended for: 2nd Grade and up
Great for: Strength, Friendship, Indigenous Peoples, Boarding Schools, Family, Love, Resilience, Determination, Community, Canadian History, Colonialism, Emotional Trauma, Religion, Social Justice, Social Issues
Book Info: I Am Not a Number by Jenny Kay Dupuis and Kathy Kacer/Illustrated by Gillian Newland, 2016 Second Story Press, ISBN: 9781927583944