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 The Orange Shirt Story. Large 3-storey industrial-looking building with many windows spans the back of the image. Canadian flag on a flag pole one the right. Centre and forefront is a young Indigenous girl with long brown hair wearing an orange shirt and blue pants with her arms crossed and a sad expression. Two Nuns in full black habits face her, one holds scissors pointed at the girl, the other holds a rosary behind her back. Sky is cloudy and gives a sombre feeling.
“This is the true story of a little girl and her very important shirt.”
The Orange Shirt Story, written by Phyllis Webstad and illustrated by Brock Nicol, tells the true story of Webstad’s memories of being removed from her home and forced to attend residential school. Phyllis Webstad is Northern Secwepemc (Shuswap) from the Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nation, and a third generation residential school survivor. The authenticity her voice brings to the story, as well as the fact that it is based upon her real lived experience provides wonderful opportunities for building empathy and encouraging further dialogue with children.
The scene is set as the book opens with warm depictions of Phyllis’ life on the Dog Creek reserve with her family. Children will be able to relate as her feelings of loneliness due to there not being many other children to play with on the reserve turn into feelings of anticipation and excitement once she is told that she is finally old enough to attend school. To prepare for school, her Granny takes her on a special shopping trip and buys her a “shiny orange shirt”. Phyllis eagerly wears this shirt when she leaves for school, only to find that the school feels scary, cold, and unfriendly once she arrives. Her shirt is taken away, and she quickly figures out that residential school is not a very nice place to be. At the particular residential school Phyllis attends, the children receive their education at a public school in town and are treated very differently from the rest of the schoolchildren who do not come from the residential school. These events offer a perfect opportunity to also spark conversation around racial inequality and injustice.
This story is a gentle, accessible, and age appropriate introduction to the history of residential schools for younger children. While some of the atrocities endured by children are hinted at, there is no graphic content. The illustrations are beautiful and emotionally evocative, which some very young children may find upsetting or troubling. For a younger audience, the author has also written a simpler adaptation titled Phyllis’s Orange Shirt.
Picture: Book Cover for Phyllis's Orange Shirt. Large 3-storey industrial-looking building with many windows spans the back of the image. Centre and forefront is back view from the chest up of a young Indigenous girl with long brown hair wearing an orange shirt. Sky is bright and image is neutral feeling.
Since 2013, Orange Shirt Day has been marked on September 30th to honour residential school survivors in the spirit of reconciliation and acknowledge that Every Child Matters. The end of September was chosen as it was traditionally the time when Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their homes to attend residential school.
Suggested Questions to ask during/after reading:
Before she goes to residential school, Phyllis is excited that she is finally old enough to attend school and play with other kids. However, when she gets there she finds that school is not a fun and exciting place. Has there ever been a time when you were excited to do something and then it turned out to not be what you expected? How did you feel?
How is Phyllis’s life on the reserve different from her life at residential school?
Why do you think the nuns take away Phyllis’s orange shirt? How do you think this makes her feel? Has someone ever taken away something that was special to you and not given it back? How did you feel?
Why do you think Phyllis and the residential school children are treated differently when they go to school in town? Is this fair? Why or why not?
Why does Phyllis think the best time of day is when the bus comes to pick them up at the end of the day?
For older children, you may be able to broach how this "school" was not like the school they know and that in fact it was more like what they would think of when they think of what jail might be like.
How do you think residential school is similar to your school? How is it different?
What would it be like to live at school? What would it be like to live at school and not be able to call home or come home?
The last line of the book says “Not every child was as lucky as Phyllis”. What do you think this means?
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!