I Am Not a Number
Dr. Jenny Kay Dupuis and Kathy Kacer, Authors
Gillian Newland, Illustrator
Second Story Press, Fiction, Oct. 4, 2016
Suitable for Ages: 7-11
Themes: Native people, Indigenous children, Residential schools, First Nation, Canada
Opening: The dark figure, backlit by the sun, filled the doorway of our home on Nipissing Reserve Number 10. “I’m here for the children,” the shadowy giant said, point a long finger at me. “You! How old?”
Synopsis: Eight-year-old Irene and her family live together on Nipissing First Nation, until the day a government agent arrives and takes Irene and her two brothers away to live at a residential school, far from home. Her parents have no choice, or they will sent to jail. As the kids are put in a car, her mother tells Irene, “Never forget home or our ways. Never forget who you are.”
At the residential school the girls and boys are separated. Sister Mary tells Irene that she is not to use her name and she is assigned a number. She is 759. Sister Mary cuts her long locks of hair and gives her a grey uniform to wear. Irene is confused, frightened and homesick. There are so many rules. When she speaks to another girl in her native language she is punished. Every day at the school is gloomy and filled with routines: prayers, breakfast, chores and studies. When summer break arrives, Irene and her brothers are sent home. When she shares how they have been treated with her parents, they vow never to send their children back to the residential school. Will they be able devise a plan to keep their children from returning? Where will the siblings go?
Why I like this book:
I am Not a Number is based on the true story of co-author Dr. Jenny Kay Dupuis’ grandmother, Irene Couchie Dupuis, an Anishinaabe women who was born into a First Nation community in Northern Ontario. It is profound story that offers a penetrating look at how Indigenous children were taken away from their families and put into residential schools run by religious groups and forced to forget about their language, customs and heritage. It isn’t an easy subject to broach, but the story is told with sensitivity and the language is age-appropriate for children. The authors have written an important teaching tool for both Canadian and American children about this injustice. This happened to Dr. Dupuis’ grandmother in 1928 — not so long ago. Gillian Newland’s illustrations are beautiful and moving. Her tones are subdued and elicit a lot of emotion. Excellent collaboration among the authors and illustrator.
Resources: There is a special section at the end about the real-life Irene and her family with photos. There is information about the Residential Schools System with photos. This is an excellent book to teach children about the history of residential schools in the 1920s. A powerful look at Canadian history and First Nation children, this book would work well paired with When I Was Eight by Christy Jordan-Fenton.
Dr. Jenny Kay Dupuis is of Anishinaabe/Ojibway ancestry and a proud member of Nipissing First Nation. She is an educator, researcher, artist, and speaker who works full-time supporting the advancement of Indigenous education. Jenny’s interest in her family’s history drew her to co-write I am Not a Number.
Kathy Kacer is well-known for her children’s books about the Holocaust, including The Secret of Gabi’s Dresser and The Magician of Auschwitz.
Every Friday, authors and KidLit bloggers post a favorite picture book. To see a complete listing of all the Perfect Picture Books (PPB) with resources, please visit author Susanna Leonard Hill’s Perfect Picture Books.