Right now I’m finding myself looking for children’s stories that have very concrete locations. I want stories located somewhere and at a particular time rather than just in some pseudo generic “anywhere.” The children are gobbling up these stories and with each one we draw a little picture and tape it onto our wall map to show where it took place.
Here are a few of the stories we’ve read recently about life in the far parts of Northern Canada. Most of these I borrowed from my local library, but I was provided a copy of When I was Eight from the publisher.
Kamik an Inuit Puppy Story is adapted from the memories of Donald Uluadluak and illustrated by Qin Leng. The story is from Arviat, Nunavut and published by Inhabit Media, an Inuit owned publishing company. It tells of a boy struggling to train his first dog and of his conversation with his grandfather where he hears about how his elders trained their dog through befriending them and raising them in a way similar to raising a child. It lends itself to discussions about child-raising, and about animals. We also noted the pictures in the inside of the cover showing the community, and how the buildings stood on stilts. Looking the location up on the map, my children noted it is below the Arctic circle.
When I was Eight by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, with illustrations by Gabrielle Grimard tells of a girl from Banks Island going to a Catholic school in Aklavik. There she is given the name Margaret and she learns to read and stand up for herself despite the nun’s efforts to humiliate her. Despite the darkness of the topic the story is written in positive tones. It begins emphasising that the young heroine is educated, knowing the skills of her community, and then speaks of her desire to go to school to learn to read the outsider’s language. It is an opening that lends itself to conversations about what education is. The heroine relates her own experience to that of Alice in Wonderland with the sense that people can change size and concluding that:
I was Olemaun, conqueror of evil, reader of books. I was a girl who traveled to a strange and faraway land to stand against a tyrant, like Alice. And like Alice, I was brave, clever and as unyielding as the strong stone that sharpens an ulu.
In Stranger at Home we hear about how Margaret / Olemaun has forgotten how to speak her language. She worries because the nuns have told her she must save her family’s souls from the pits of damnation. The taste of her mother’s food is too strong and salty for her. She is an outsider at her home and as such the book she relates to is Gulliver’s Travels. She watches and empathizes with a black stranger in her town, recognizing that she has it easier than him since she “had only to remember how to be Olemaun Pokiak, an Inuvialuit girl. Whereas the Du-bil-ak was not one of us at all. He was not even like the outsiders we were used to. Nothing he did would bring him family or friends.” (pg 76)
The book does a beautiful job looking at the need for both change and continuity. Her time away at school has made Margaret a stranger, yet her family recognizes that things are changing and reading the outsider’s language will soon be a necessity. Her mother is embarrassed about how much her daughter is an outsider now, a stranger, and yet her mother also wants somehow to learn to read. At the end of Stranger At Home comes the triumphant ending found in When I was Eight but missing from Fatty Legs, and it comes as she returns to the school to accompany and protect her two younger sisters.
I was Olemaun now, and I would keep us together, safe and strong. I would teach my sister’s how to ward off the outsiders’ spells, the spells that could bind you in something scratchy and thing and tight, like the uniforms they would make us wear, until we no longer knew where we fit in. I would teach my sisters to walk each day of their lives as though they were wearing a warm and beautiful parka, with their heads held high as if they always belonged, no matter where they were.