When I Was Eight
Written by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton
Illustrated by Gabrielle Grimard
Her father teaches Olemaun how to do many things; however, he cannot teach the eight-year-old Inuit how to read because he does not read himself. Hearing the books read to her by her older sister Rosie is no longer enough. To read them herself becomes Olemaun’s dream. All through the winter, she begs her father to let her go to school far from her Arctic home, but he refuses. He knows bad things about the school that she doesn’t. But Olemaun is nothing if not persistent. After all, her name means “the stubborn stone that sharpens the half-moon ulu knife.” Against his better judgment, he leaves her off at the school in spring when they make their long journey to trade with the outsiders.
When Olemaun first arrives, the nuns strip her of her beautiful hair, her warm clothes, and even her dignity. They call her Margaret and treat her as a slave. When she is finally called into the classroom by a kindly nun, she hopes to learn to read; but the actual teacher turns out to be the same nun who had cut her hair with such pleasure. Instead of teaching her to read, the nun makes fun of Olemaun and puts her in a corner. After that, she takes every opportunity to prove Olemaun’s inferiority, giving her extra chores until her muscles ache. But Olemaun learns as she goes, studying letters before she wipes them from the board and sounding out the words on cleaning supplies. Even being given red socks as punishment and being shut up in the cellar cannot thwart Olemaun from her quest to learn to read.
Readers at the fourth grade levels will treasure this book about Olemaun’s determination to read. The book has the feel of a fairy tale with a wicked stepmother, but it’s all the more powerful because it’s based on a true story. Although the prejudice underlying the nun’s cruelty will likely shock readers with fourth grade reading skills, Olemaun’s ultimate victory will make them cheer silently.