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When I Was Eight


Nothing will stop a strong-minded young Inuit girl from learning how to read.

Olemaun is eight and knows a lot of things. But she does not know how to read. She must travel to the outsiders' school to learn, ignoring her father's warning of what will happen there.

The nuns at the school take her Inuit name and call her Margaret. They cut off her long hair and force her to do chores. She has only one thing left...

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Nothing will stop a strong-minded young Inuit girl from learning how to read.

Olemaun is eight and knows a lot of things. But she does not know how to read. She must travel to the outsiders' school to learn, ignoring her father's warning of what will happen there.

The nuns at the school take her Inuit name and call her Margaret. They cut off her long hair and force her to do chores. She has only one thing left — a book about a girl named Alice, who falls down a rabbit hole.

Margaret's tenacious character draws the attention of a black-cloaked nun who tries to break her spirit at every turn. But she is more determined than ever to read.

By the end, Margaret knows that, like Alice, she has traveled to a faraway land and stood against a tyrant, proving herself to be brave and clever.

Based on the true story of
Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, and complemented by stunning illustrations, When I Was Eight makes the bestselling Fatty Legs accessible to young children. Now they, too, can meet this remarkable girl who reminds us what power we hold when we can read.

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Editorial Reviews

Booklist - Jeanne McDermott
A searing account of assimilation policies and a celebration of the human spirit
In this picture-book memoir, an Inuit recollects how she begged her father to attend the church-run Indian residential school so she could fulfill her cherished dream to learn to read... What she discovers is the school is draconian... Olemaun describes how a nun cuts her braid, changes her name, and assigns an endless list of chores... Even as she labors, Olemaun finds strength in memories of her father's love and uses every opportunity to study the alphabet and sound out words. Effective shadow-ridden illustrations capture the pervasive atmosphere of abuse, but the final picture speaks volumes about Olemaun's determination and triumph: her face appears as large and shining as the sun emerging from darkness, because she has taught herself to read... A searing account of assimilation policies and a celebration of the human spirit.
Canadian Materials - Shelbey Krahn
Olemaun is a great character and an excellent example for young readers to follow.
Canlit for Little Canadians
Pokiak-Fenton's true story of her experiences at residential school, was originally told in Fatty Legs (Annick, 2010), When I Was Eight is an even more powerful read due to its emphasis on concise, affective text coupled with Gabrielle Grimard's quietly unpretentious artwork.
Exeter Times Advocate
Powerful and disturbing... Readers will admire her for her incredible spirit and courage.
Resource Links, Vol. 18, No. 5 - Lori Austin
When I was Eight is a powerful story based on the true story of Margaret Pokiak-Fenton... It is a story of a young Inuit girl who goes to a residential school and suffers terrible abuse from the nuns at the school... Through all these trials, she perseveres in trying to learn to read. One day in class she is finally able to stand up to the teacher and show her own strength by reading aloud. It is a moment of victory! Although this story may be intended for younger students who are studying the Inuit, it could also be used in upper grades when discussing social justice issues. The story ties in with anti-bullying themes as well... Highly recommended.
Sal's Fiction Addiction - Sally Bender
This excellent picture book, written as a companion to the longer version of it called Fatty Legs, is a powerful way to introduce the residential school experience to younger readers.
School Library Journal
K-Gr 4—This condensed, illustrated version of Fatty Legs (Annick, 2010) brings the power of literacy to even younger children. An eight-year-old Inuit child from Banks Island in far northern Canada desperately wanted to learn to read English like her older sister, but her father refused to let her attend the Indian Residential School. However, her persistent pleading wore away his resistance, and he consented. They made the five-day trek to the Catholic-run school where Olemaun was stripped of her Native identity-her hair, her clothes, even her name. She was allowed to keep only her beloved copy of Alice in Wonderland. Renamed Margaret, she clung to her desire to learn to read, enduring humiliation and harsh treatment from cruel nuns and unkind classmates. She instinctively knew that literacy was powerful, and she used it to give her courage and "to carry [her] far away from the laughter." In a showdown with a nun, Margaret defied the insensitive teacher, who in turn tried to humiliate Margaret by demanding that she read a difficult passage aloud in class. However, she read without hesitation and triumphed. "There was no stopping me" is an accurate description of what happens when someone-child or adult-learns to read. Sprinkled throughout are details of Inuit life. The beautiful, expressive watercolor illustrations depict Margaret's journey from her village to the misery of residential school to her success. This book is a small but powerful reminder of the freedom that literacy brings.—Lisa Crandall, formerly at the Capital Area District Library, Holt, MI
Children's Literature - Ken Marantz and Sylvia Marantz
When she is eight, young Olemaun asks to be taken away from the Inuit name and life she knows because she is determined to learn to read. She does not realize the cruelty she will face at the outsiders school. Her hair is cut, her clothes changed along with her name; heavy chores are assigned and she faces humiliation in the classroom until she learns English and her letters. Locked in the basement, she finally gains strength from feeling her father's presence. Readers will suffer with Olemaun's trials in the lengthy text and celebrate her final triumph. Full page, naturalistic paintings are always focused on Olemaun, called Margaret, with the barest of other props. Using mainly dark colors, Grimard expresses the grim qualities of the school, contrasting somewhat with the warmer color of the students and the happy face of our heroine at the end. The story is based on "Margaret's" real life experience. Reviewer: Ken Marantz and Sylvia Marantz
Kirkus Reviews
The authors of Fatty Legs (2010) distill that moving memoir of an Inuit child's residential school experience into an even more powerful picture book. "Brave, clever, and as unyielding" as the sharpening stone for which she's named, Olemaun convinces her father to send her from their far-north village to the "outsiders' school." There, the 8-year-old receives particularly vicious treatment from one of the nuns, who cuts her hair, assigns her endless chores, locks her in a dark basement and gives her ugly red socks that make her the object of other children's taunts. In her first-person narration, she compares the nun to the Queen in Alice in Wonderland, a story she has heard from her sister and longs to read for herself, subtly reminding readers of the power of literature to help face real life. Grimard portrays this black-cloaked nun with a scowl and a hooked nose, the image of a witch. Her paintings stretch across the gutter and sometimes fill the spreads. Varying perspectives and angles, she brings readers into this unfamiliar world. Opening with a spread showing the child's home in a vast, frozen landscape, she proceeds to hone in on the painful school details. A final spread shows the triumphant child and her book: "[N]ow I could read." Utterly compelling. (Picture book/memoir. 5-9)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781554514908
  • Publisher: Annick Press, Limited
  • Publication date: 3/3/2013
  • Pages: 32
  • Sales rank: 1,416,388
  • Age range: 6 - 9 Years
  • Product dimensions: 8.80 (w) x 8.80 (h) x 0.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton are the authors of Fatty Legs and A Stranger at Home. They live in Fort St. John, BC.

Gabrielle Grimard has illustrated numerous books for children. She lives in Quebec.

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