A member of the Eabametoong First Nation and acclaimed author Ruby Slipperjack says her latest book — These Are My Words: The Residential School Diary of Violet Pesheens — was one of the hardest projects she's ever worked on.
"I had nightmares," Slipperjack explained, "I had shelved so many memories and I just never opened that cupboard all these years."
Slipperjack is the winner of the 2017 Vicky Metcalf Award for Literature for Young People from the Writer's Trust of Canada for her body of work. She's the author of seven novels for young people.
Her latest book tells the story of a 12-year old girl's experience at a residential school in 1966.
Slipperjack said she really had to draw on her own experiences and memories of attending Shingwauk Residential School in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. for this particular novel.
"I was going up the stairs at the university to the cafeteria and it was that smell, that smell of the food cooking," Slipperjack recalled, "I just froze on the stairs and it brought back horrible memories."
Born in Whitewater Lake, Ont. Slipperjack spent most of her childhood in a small First Nation community along the railway mainline in northern Ontario, learning traditional stories and crafts from her family.
Which is why she believes her novels resonate with the students and children who live in northern Ontario today.
"Those that live along the railway tracks, it's a really closed community and everybody knows everyone," Slipperjack said, "so [the children] really identify with that."
She said she remembers her first weekend at Shingwauk Residential School and nearly getting lost while going for a walk because she picked a stop sign as her landmark without realizing how common stop signs are in a city.
Slipperjack said she believes the diary-style format of the novel, along with her personal experiences, will help readers of all ages fully grasp and understand how it might have felt to be a child in a residential school.
"In a diary format when the child is actually writing down what he or she is feeling ... it's more private [and] more feelings can be brought out in that format," Slipperjack said, "that might help people understand exactly what it was like for a child to have to stay in that environment."