When eight-year-old Irene is removed from her First Nations family to live in a residential school she is confused, frightened, and terribly homesick. She tries to remember who she is and where she came from, despite the efforts of the nuns who are in charge at the school and who tell her that she is not to use her own name but instead use the number they have assigned to her. When she goes home for summer holidays, Irene's parents decide never to send her and her brothers away again. But where will they hide? And what will happen when her parents disobey the law? Based on the life of co-author Jenny Kay Dupuis’ grandmother, I Am Not a Number is a hugely necessary book that brings a terrible part of Canada’s history to light in a way that children can learn from and relate to.
July 11, 2016
Kacer (The Magician of Auschwitz, also illustrated by Newland) and educator Dupuis unflinchingly recount a story from the childhood of Dupuis’s grandmother, one of some 150,000 Canadian First Nations children relocated to residential schools as part of an assimilation policy. Irene Couchie and two brothers were taken from their family in 1928 to attend a Catholic boarding school. She was assigned a number in lieu of her name, her long hair was unceremoniously cut, and a nun physically abused her for speaking her native language (“even though the red sores had now turned pink, the memory of the punishment had not faded one bit”). The story never shies from the harsh treatment Irene endured, peaking dramatically when the children hide from the agent coming to collect them for a second school year. They were among the lucky ones whose parents took a stand and refused to return them. Most spreads feature a full page of first-person narrative opposite Newland’s somber watercolors. An afterword discusses Canada’s history with the residential school program (and recent government apologies for it) and provides additional details about her grandmother’s life. Ages 7–11.
The story was captivatingly told.... I can’t stress the importance of having these books in your library collection enough. They reflect accurately the experiences of many Native families and the history of many Native peoples (not just the ones in Canada). They can start conversations, albeit hard ones for us white teachers and parents, around the deep seated racism in our country and how that has played out over the years. They can also ensure that children are being exposed to this history.
Of special note is the author’s ability to portray the devastating environment that Irene lived in, in a heartfelt and authentic way that is very much appropriate for the intended age... Few stories exist about the residential school system that are aimed at a younger age group, and this one is an absolute must for classrooms and libraries.
This well done, empathetic historical book is highly recommended for all collections. (Starred Review)
Gillian Newland’s illustrations are a highly realistic, very evocative accompaniment to [the] text. They set the tone and establish the mood of the story.... [The book] raises such issues as child rights, parental rights, Canadian constitutional rights, and Indigenous rights. I Am Not a Number would be an excellent starting point for anyone pursuing these issues.
To any one looking for a book to teach children about the history of residential schools 'I Am Not A Number' is without hesitation a very powerful and historical teaching tool.
It’s important to teach children about true Canadian history, but it’s not easy to talk about it in a way that children will understand. I Am Not a Number is perfect to get the conversation about residential schools started with your children. It opens the door for them to ask questions about the subject and the story is relatable in a way they can follow.
The personal relevance of the subject matter to Jenny Kay Dupuis comes through in the strong text she co-wrote with Kathy Kacer.... primary school teachers and librarians will find much here that they can work with.
Gillian Newland's sombre illustrations, done with a muted palette of greys, greens and browns, beautifully capture the written words.... This book is a moving look into an injustice that continues to have ramifications for First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples.
Residential and boarding school stories are hard to read, but they're vitally important... books like I Am Not a Number should be taught in schools in Canada, and the U.S., too.
With tenacious resolve and empathetic storytelling, [Jenny Kay Dupuis, Kathy Kacer, and Gillian Newland] reminds us – perhaps more urgently than ever – that 'there is still much work to be done.'
Endless cross-curricular connections can be made using this story. But the most powerful aspect of this book is that it will open a dialogue, one that Justice Murray Sinclair spoke of as head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a dialogue that needs to take place for reconciliation to happen.
[A] powerful teaching tool that brings a terrible part of Canada’s history to light in a way that children can learn from and relate to. It is written in simple language and told in a way that will stimulate conversations about residential schools and the traumatic effects they have had on generations of First Nation families and communities. ... beautifully illustrated by Gillian Newland. She captures the somber mood of the school, the anguish of the children, the severity of the nuns and the desperation of the family. Students can easily empathize with Irene and her brothers as well as their parents as they try to imagine how they would feel or act in a similar situation.
A moving glimpse into a not-very-long-past injustice.