It’s a question so many parents wondered as their children first heard flickers about the tragic news from Kamloops: 215 children, residential schools, unmarked graves. While the instinct as a parent might be to shelter, to say, “It’s just too terrible,” it is through truth-telling and remembering that you can help your children understand what happened and honor those precious little lives.
Today’s students will benefit greatly from having a deeper cultural and emotional awareness than you might have had at their age, and yet most of us don’t have the anecdotes or the words to explain racism and the residential school experience. So, let us lean on story and language. Let us remember these children in a way that will touch and open our children’s hearts.
Now, we are fortunate to have a good number of beautifully told and beautifully illustrated children’s storybooks about First Nations culture and residential schools.
As you continue to navigate all of this with your family, here are eight books with powerful messages and images:
1. Birdsong by Julie Flett. A Cree mother and daughter leave the seaside for Canada’s grassy plains. Told alongside the changing of seasons, this book brings the reader along on a quiet and contemplative journey through nature, family, and Cree culture. Cree words and customs are woven seamlessly throughout this beautifully illustrated book.
2. Sometimes I Feel Like a Fox by Danielle Daniel. A Métis mixed-media artist and writer, Daniel’s beautiful story welcomes readers to the Anishinaabe tradition of totem animals. Throughout the book, children don masks that represent their animal and explain why they identify with the creature. In Anishinaabe culture, Daniel explains, totem animals are guides to help children understand themselves and the people around them.
3. Stolen Words by Melanie Florence. “How do you say 'grandfather' in Cree?” the little girl asks her grandfather. Sadness washes over him as he tells his granddaughter that he does not know. His words were stolen from him at a residential school. This book is an illustrated telling of a young girl’s quest to help her grandfather recover his language.
4. The Girl and the Wolf by Katherena Vermette. A girl in a red dress meets a wolf in the woods. But this isn’t the wolf-demonizing trope we know. Instead, when the little girl wanders too far into the woods, she meets a wolf who helps her find her way back home. This book is a heartwarming illustration about reconnecting with nature.
5. Trudy’s Rock Story by Trudy Spiller. Everyone experiences negative feelings. In this book, a young girl from the Gitxsan Nation is arguing with her brother when she remembers the teachings of her grandmother. Instead of taking her anger out on her brother, she searches for and shares her feelings with a rock. This timeless story teaches readers how to process and release negative feelings.
6. When We Are Kind by Monique Gray Smith. Children know they should be kind, but what does it mean to be kind? In this book, Smith explores acts of everyday kindness and empowers readers to bring joy to others. This touching story for readers of all ages is beautifully illustrated by Nicole Neihardt.
7. When We Were Alone by David A. Robertson. “Why do you wear clothes of so many different colors, grandma?” a young girl asks at the beginning of this empowering story. She asks her grandmother about the language she speaks and the braid in her hair. This book tells the story about a grandmother’s life in a residential school when her culture was taken away from her. Among its many powerful messages is the need for children to have stories in their own language.
8. You Hold Me Up by Monique Gray Smith. Danielle Daniel’s colorful illustrations meet Smith’s clear narrative to create an empowering story about kindness, relationships, and compassion. The book encourages readers to show their love and support for one another. This book shows how even the smallest action can have a big impact on those you love.
Steacy is the CEO of Calgary Reads, an early literacy organization changing the lives of children and their families. Calgary Reads believes reading can change the world, and the world can be changed by readers. The Little Red Reading House in Inglewood is an entire home dedicated to inspiring family reading. Visit littleredreading.house for a host of book picks categorized by experiences and feelings, as well as great resources to guide family reading fun!
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