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.
As an author-educator, how do your various roles inform one another?
My roles as an educator and author are intrinsically interconnected. I’m always searching for meaningful, engaging ways to reach out to young people so they can learn more about topics pertaining to Indigenous realities, diversity, social and cultural justice, and respectful relationships.
While working in the field of education, I realized that there were not many children’s picture books available that focused on Indigenous realities through the lens of a First Nations family.
Co-writing I Am Not a Number with Kathy Kacer gave me the opportunity to reflect on the value of literature for young people and how educators and families can make use of picture books to start conversations about critical, real-world issues.
When writing my granny’s story, I realized that I was drawing on my expertise as an Indigenous community member, educator and learning strategist. I was cognizant of how children’s literature can be used as a gateway to encourage young readers to unpack a story (“community memories”), think critically, and guide them to form their own opinions about issues of assimilation, identity loss, oppression, and injustice; all of which are major themes deeply rooted in policies that have either impacted or still impact Indigenous peoples.
|Jenny Kay Dupuis|
A children’s picture book like, I Am Not a Number can support educators, students, and families to engage in deep and meaningful conversations.
The story is about my granny, who was taken from Nipissing First Nation reserve at a young age to live at a residential school in 1928.
The book can be used to direct conversations about not only Indigenous histories, but also the importance of exploring the underlying concepts of social change, including aspects of power relations, identity, and representation. For instance, young readers can engage in a character analysis by exploring the characters’ ethics, motivations and effects of behaviours, and the impact of social, cultural, and political forces.
Through strong characters, written words, and vivid illustrations, the readers can also explore aspects of imagery, the settings, and the power of voice (terminology) used to express feelings of strength, fear, loss, and hope.
My hope as an educator-author is that the book, I Am Not a Number, will inspire others to use children’s literature to encourage young people to begin to talk about past and present injustices that Indigenous communities face.
How did the outside (non-children’s-YA-lit) world react to the news of your sale?
I Am Not a Number was released on Sept. 6. The reviews have been overwhelmingly positive in Canada and the United States so far. One of the review sources, Kirkus Reviews, described it as “a moving glimpse into a not-very-long-past injustice.” Booklist also gave it a starred review and highly recommended it. Other book reviewers have recommended it for teachers, librarians, and families.
As a lead up to the launch of the book, I was asked by various groups (mostly educators) to present either in person or through Skype about topics linked to Indigenous education and the value of children’s young adult literature. The sessions have been helpful for the participants to see how a book like I Am Not a Number and others can be used.
The book will also be available in French in early January by Scholastic.
What would you have done differently?
|By Jenny’s co-author, Kathy Kacer|
A children’s book is typically limited to a set number of pages. If more space was permitted, I would have liked to include a short description in the afterword of what happened after my granny and her siblings returned home from the residential school.
In my granny’s case, she enrolled in an international private school. The school was located nearby on the shores of Lake Nipissing.
It offered her an opportunity to stay in her community with her family while still receiving an education. Her siblings also each chose their own life path.
What advice do you have for beginning children’s YA-writers? How about diverse writers for young people? Native/First Nations writers for young people?
Although my first book is a story about my granny who was taken from her First Nations community at a young age to live in a residential school, we need to recognize that there are countless other community stories that need to be told by Indigenous peoples.
My advice for anyone who wants to get started writing children’s-YA literature is relatively straightforward.
|photo credits to Les Couchi for restoration of the photo|
- Have confidence in your abilities. Start by exploring a topic that you know about.
- Be honest and authentic. Prepare to gather information to ensure the authenticity of the story through an accurate portrayal of the people, place, time period, experiences, language, and setting.
- Be purposeful, thoughtful, and intentional. Take the time to identify what is the intended impact of the story. Writers need to continually ask themselves, “How will the readers be influenced by the characters, language, and overall messaging? How will the reader’s view of their own world be expanded?
- Be authentic. Since I Am Not a Number is a children’s picture book, it was important that it include authentic imagery. A relative of mine, Les Couchi, had restored a series of old family photos. The old photos helped to inform decisions when communicating with the illustrator, Gillian Newland about the hairstyles, what items to include in my great-grandfather’s shop, etc. One of the old photos is included in the book and shows my granny and her siblings outside their house.
- Identify your responsibilities. Sometimes writers from diverse backgrounds have a greater responsibility that includes not just writing the story, but also educating others and transmitting knowledge about cultural, social, political, or economic issues buried within the story. In this instance, I Am Not a Number is not just about a First Nation’s girl who was taken to live in a residential school, but it is a story that raises consciousness that Irene (my granny) is one of over hundreds of thousands of Indigenous children impacted by assimilation policies and racialized injustice.
- Be patient and anticipate a lengthy process that may involve information gathering, several rounds of edits, fact checking, searching for the right illustrator, etc. As such, I regularly turned to my family between edits to get their feedback and continued to listen to their memories. Some of the stories included memories of how my great-grandmother often made the best homemade meat pies, baked breads, jams, and preserves.
- Realize that your work is reflection of you. Just because something was done a certain way in the past, does not always make it right today. Be prepared to speak up and ask questions when you feel something does not feel right as you progress throughout the process, especially if you feel it feel it impacts your own ethics and values, or misrepresents a person’s/group’s racial or cultural identity or nation.
- Discuss participation, consent and consultation. It is essential that publishers who engage with Indigenous authors fully recognize Indigenous expertise and honour the importance of how to respectfully work in collaboration with Indigenous peoples by ensuring their full participation, consultation, and informed consent at all stages.
|Visit Second Story Press|
Dr. Jenny Kay Dupuis is of Anishinaabe/Ojibway ancestry and a proud member of Nipissing First Nation. She is an educator, community researcher, artist, and speaker who works full-time supporting the advancement of Indigenous education.
Jenny’s interest in her family’s past and her commitment to teaching about Indigenous issues through literature drew her to co-write I Am Not a Number, her first children’s book. The book can be ordered from a favourite bookstore (Indiebound) and online from Amazon.ca, Amazon.com, and Indigo.