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MAR Book Review: I Am Not A Number

Each week Moms Against Racism will review a book from our monthly book list and provide questions and prompts for discussion with your kids. Let us know how it goes!

Picture: Book Cover for I Am Not A Number. Sad and scared Indigenous girl pictured shoulders up with no shirt having her long hair cut by a black-robed adult figure.

“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, pointing a long finger at me. ‘You! How old? I shrank behind my mother. Here for the children?’”

These chilling opening lines from I Am Not a Number by Jenny Kay Dupuis and Kathy Kacer, with illustrations by Gillian Newland, set the stage for an emotional story centered around a terrible part of Canada’s history in a way that is immediately relatable for children. Based on the real life events of co-author Jenny Kay Dupuis’ granny, I Am Not a Number recounts the experiences of Irene, an eight-year-old Anishinaabe girl, as she is forcibly removed from her home and family in Northern Ontario in order to attend residential school. Although the book is a work of fiction, the fact that it is based on a true story makes it all the more impactful. First person point of view allows readers to connect with the main character and build emotion and empathy by exploring an alternate perspective. The language used in the book is simple, matter of fact, and to the point, which ensures that the story remains accessible and easy to understand for young readers. Further, the authors are successful in detailing some of the trauma and atrocities which occurred at residential schools in an age-appropriate manner while not sugarcoating the challenging subject matter. Parents and caregivers considering this book for their children should be aware that depictions of physical abuse are detailed, but in a manner which is neither graphic nor gratuitous.

In addition to using this book for the purpose of children learning about the topic of residential schools and cultural genocide, I Am Not a Number is also an important book for adults. Parents will connect with and relate to Irene’s parents’ feelings and reactions as they are faced with their children being removed from home. Additionally, the emotion portrayed creates powerful opportunities for conversation between parents and their children. With this in mind, as always we recommend reading this book alongside your children and discussing as you read. The book also does not conclude with a moral or a complete ending, which leaves ample space for continued dialogue.

Suggested questions to ask during and after reading:

  • At the beginning of the book, the Indian agent shows up suddenly without any warning as a complete surprise to Irene and her siblings. How do you think they feel being faced with this surprise? Do you think they would feel any differently if they had known the Indian agent was coming? Why do you think the agent surprises Irene’s family like this and gives them hardly any time to prepare or say goodbye to each other? How would you feel if you were suddenly told you had to leave your family and go away to school? What would you do? How would you react?

  • Irene asks her father “But why are you letting him take us?” and he turns away from her. Why do you think he does not answer this question?

  • Irene’s mother tells her to “Never forget home or our ways. Never forget us. Never forget who you are!” What do you think she is worried about when she says this? Why do you think she gives Irene this warning? How would you feel to be leaving your home and family not knowing if or when you would return? How do you think your parents would feel?

  • When Irene and her brothers leave, they are at least relieved that they will have each other. How do you think they feel when they arrive at residential school and are separated from each other with no time to even say goodbye? Do you think they are expecting to see each other again?

  • Sister Mary tells Irene that they use numbers instead of names at residential school, and she will now be known as 759. How do you think this makes Irene feel? What would it be like to have someone call you a number instead of your name?

  • Why do you think Sister Mary tells Irene and the other girls to “scrub all the brown off?” Is there a reason why you think one of the girls says that “She must like lighter-skinned girls better”?

  • Why does Sister Mary punish Irene for speaking in her traditional Ojibway language? Do you think the punishment is appropriate?

  • While sitting in the chapel, Irene asks herself “why must I change everything about myself?” Why do you think she feels this way? Why is she being asked to change? Who is asking her to change?

  • While at residential school, Irene dreams of being back home. Once she returns home for the summer she has nightmares of being back at residential school. How do you think these different dreams make her feel? Why does what she is dreaming about change depending on whether she is at school or at home?

  • When the Indian agent returns, why do you think Irene calls him “my kidnapper”?

  • What do you think happens next after the end of the story? Do you think Irene and her brothers get to stay at home, or do you think they have to go back to residential school? If they stay home, do you think they are worried about being taken away again? Do you think they feel safe at home now?

“My name was Lydia, but in the school I was, I didn’t have a name, I had numbers. I had number 51, number 44, number 32, number 16, number 11, and then finally number one when I was just about coming to high school. So, I wasn’t, I didn’t have a name, I had numbers. You were called 32, that’s me, and all our clothes were, had 32 on them. All our clothes and footwear, they all had number 32, number 16, whatever number they gave me.”

Lydia Ross, on her experience at Cross Lake Residential School in Manitoba, as documented in The Survivors Speak: A Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (p. 66)

We hope reading this book with your children help both you and them become more comfortable talking about race, racial injustice, residential school trauma, and Canada's history . If you would like additional support, make sure you join our Moms Against Racism Facebook Group.

This blog post has been brought to you by our partner-sponsor Bolen Books. If you are looking to add anti-racism books to your personal library, please buy from Bolen!

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