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Pickle Me This

October 6, 2017

When We Were Alone, by David A. Robertson and Julie Flett

Please forgive the absence of a proper Picture Book Friday post but my phone broke so I can’t take photos, plus my children are off school tomorrow schedules are all askew. But I did make time to run out to Parentbooks this afternoon to pick up a copy of When We Were Alone, by David A. Robertson and illustrated by Julie Flett, whose work I so adore. Partly because Orange Shirt Day was observed at my children’s school last week, and I wanted this book to contextualize it. And also because When We Were Alone has just been nominated for a Governor General’s Award, on the trail of big wins at the Manitoba Book Awards earlier this year and a nomination for the TD Children’s Literature, whose winner will be announced next month. I’d read it earlier this year while we were at the Halifax Central Library, but I didn’t read it to my kids because the book made me a bit nervous. I’d interpreted the title in a sinister fashion, and knew the book was about residential school survivors, and really, I wasn’t sure even I wanted to know what had happened when these poor kids were alone.

But I was wrong, for so many reasons, not least of all in thinking that these kinds of stories were the sort I could ever turn away from when so many other people don’t have that luxury, but also because it was when the children were alone that they were free and used all kinds of smart and beautiful ways to subvert the tyranny and abuse of residential schools. For example, where they had their hair cut short, and dressed in drab uniforms, and were forbidden to speak their languages. But when they were alone, the narrative goes, the children would braid long strands of grass into their regulation short hair, and decorate their bodies with colourful leaves, and hide in the fields far away from everybody else and talk to each other in Cree. So that this is a story of resilience and survival, even more so because the story is told through the perspective of a young girl who is asking her Kokum why she does things the way she does—have her hair so long, wear bright colours, speak in Cree, and Kokum explains that she does all these things because once upon a time she couldn’t.

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