Review of dual language edition

I Am Not a Number - Jenny Kay Dupuis, Kathy Kacer, Gillian Newland

Illustrations by Gillian Newland
Translation by Muriel Sawyer and Geraldine McLeod
Contributions by Tory Fisher

Disclaimer: I received a digital version of this book via Netgalley in exchange for a fair and honest review. The book, however, had been on my tbr shelf as the English only edition has been out since 2016. Additionally, I cannot speak to the accuracy of the translation into Nishnaabemwin (Ojibwe) Nbisiing dialect.

Shortly before I got approved for this galley, The Final Report of National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls was released in Canada. It provoked various reactions including, predictably, people getting upset about the use of the word genocide. Yet, when you look at the history of colonialization in both Canada and America, you reach the conclusion what other world can be used. It wasn’t just simply killing in terms of a warfare of taking land but also the attempted (sometimes wholly or partly successful) destruction of culture.

This is what Dupuis and Kacer’s book illustrates. The story is based on the real life of Dupuis’s grandmother Irene, who along with two of her brothers, was forcibly taken to a residential school where her native language, Ojibway, and culture. And if you are thinking that doesn’t sound pleasant, it’s not.

If you have read anything about the Residential schools, even in passing than you know that to say they were hotbeds of abuse is an understatement. This a children’s book, and so Irene’s experiences, while not sugar coated, are not as graphic as they would have been in a young adult novel. It is important to note that the writing and art make it clear that while the physical abuse was painful, also painful, perhaps more so, was the attack on culture and belief. This is particularly true of where Irene is forced to have her hair cut.

The book also speaks to the strength of family ties, not only between parents and children but between the children themselves. While not all the nuns are sadistic, even the nice one’s form part of the power structure that is determined to “transform” First Nations children into Western (white) children. Such people might not be physically abusive but they can be harmful in a different way, and the book does show this.

There is an afterword and historical notes at the end. Dupuis tells the reader more about her family and grandmother. There is also information about the Residential schools. However, there is not a further reading list, and I wonder if this because there are so few children’s books about the subject or if it is simply an oversight.

The layout of this edition includes the Nishnaabenwin (Ojibwe) Nbisiing dialect version first, followed by the English version. This is true from the title, to story, to afterword. This layout is wonderful. The only thing I might add, might be a pronunciation guide. According to the translation note at the beginning of the book, the translation is important not only because it is the language that Irene was forbidden to and punished for speaking at the school, but also because it is also to create space for Indigenous speakers in children’s literature as well adding to community literature. This reasoning would speak to not having a pronunciation guide (why would Indigenous Speakers need it) but considering the dual language of the book, it could easily be used in a majority non-Indigenous class, in which case the guide would be helpful.