Four Books by Margaret Pokiak-Fenton

by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

These four books present the true story of Olemaun’s (Margaret’s Inuvialuit name) childhood. Fatty Legs tells of Margaret’s traumatic experience going off to Catholic boarding school in the 1940s and leaving behind her home in the Arctic Circle. She endures the same type of mistreatment from adults suffered by indigenous children throughout North America during this boarding school era, and it is eloquently described using metaphors to Alice in Wonderland. When I Was Eight is a picture book version of this story, though it is not exactly the same; some incidents are simplified, and some are, curiously, expanded on and given new context. In the chapter book, she knows not to pester her father to send her away to school (yes, she begs; she is desperate to learn to read) until the spring (“…I held it inside all through the long months that followed” (p. 8); in the picture book, she “wore away at him all through the winter.”

A Stranger At Home recounts Margaret’s return and subsequent feelings of isolation and not belonging, and it is also paired with a picture book called Not My Girl, which is what her mother said of her upon seeing her for the first time in two years. Not My Girl has the same feeling as When I Was Eight, simplifying some incidents and expanding on others in a curious way. (For example, there is an incident with sled dog puppies in the picture book that is omitted in the chapter book.) From ages 8 to 10, Margaret and her classmates were so thoroughly instructed in English that they forgot their native tongue. Upon her return, she was only able to communicate with her father, who had also gone away to boarding school, and her best friend, Agnes, who was forbidden from associating with her because her parents wanted her to reintegrate into their lives. Margaret eventually regains her native speech, but the end of the book hints that her sisters now beg to go to school as she once did, and she is sent along to help protect them.

A friend saw these on my coffee table and, though not having any sort of background in children’s books, asked a question of the picture book versions that my colleagues and I ask often: Who is this for? It seems that any child old enough to understand this topic, and especially its historical context, is probably old enough for the chapter book versions. The illustrations are great, but I do wonder who it is intended for, and I’d love to know why they made the changes they did between the picture book and chapter book versions. Overall, though, very well done and on a topic that could always use more attention.

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