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Media Release: Picturing Residential School Stories – How picture books are teaching children about atrocities

CALGARY, May 27, 2016 — A little girl dressed in a white-collared shirt and green school uniform clutches at a book. It is the cover artwork to the picture book “When I was eight” written by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton and illustrated by Gabrielle Grimard.

“When I was eight” is based on Margaret Pokiak-Fenton’s time spent in a residential school. Unlike most children, Margaret had begged her parents to send her to a residential school. She wanted, desperately, to learn to read. But reading was not on the agenda, and all Margaret was exposed to was cleaning, cooking and farm work.

The picture book doesn’t shy away from depicting what happened in residential schools in Canada. And according to Anha-Jayne Markland of York University in Toronto, it’s a good thing. Markland is looking at the emotional response young students have to two specific picture books, “When I was eight” and its sequel “Not my girl”, and how these books can be important tools for reconciliation. Markland will be presenting the study at the 2016 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences in Calgary.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) recommended in its Calls to Action for Education for Reconciliation that “We call upon the federal, provincial, and territorial governments, in consultation and collaboration with Survivors, Aboriginal peoples, and educators, to: Make age-appropriate curriculum on residential schools, Treaties, and Aboriginal peoples’ historical and contemporary contributions to Canada a mandatory education requirement for Kindergarten to Grade Twelve students.”

The recommendation raises the question: how can we teach young children about atrocities like the ones that happened at the residential schools? That’s where picture books come in. Picture books are the age-appropriate tool for communicating with young children.

In “When I was eight”, Margaret’s name is changed from Olemaun to Margaret by the nuns and they also cut off her long hair.

“A lot is communicated through images,” said Markland. “The pain and suffering, instead of being spelled out, is conveyed through colour, the art, the images of sad faces. It’s up to the kids to pick up on that.”

Picture books are made for repeated readings. Children can pick out more and absorb as much as they are able each time it is read.

Reaction to the picture books from teachers and students has been positive. There is an excitement among teachers for incorporating the books into the curriculum. And children understand Margaret’s sadness, but they also see how strong she is as she teaches herself to read.

Anha-Jayne Markland will be presenting this research on May 28 at the 2016 Congress for the Humanities and Social Sciences in Calgary. This presentation is called “Picturing Residential School Stories: The Compliance and Defiance of Picture books about Canadian Residential Schools” and will take place at 1:45 pm at Social Science - 541 at the University of Calgary.

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