Sunday September 11, 2016

Residential school memoir set to become new Canadian children's classic

Book authors Christy Jordan-Fenton  and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, with family in a B.C. school library before a presentation on residential schools.

Book authors Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, with family in a B.C. school library before a presentation on residential schools. (Betsy Trumpener)

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By Betsy Trumpener

An Inuk grandmother's life has inspired a best-selling series of books about residential school so popular, they're set to become Canadian children's classic.

Fatty Legs, the first of four non-fiction picture books, is still making booksellers' top 10 lists, even six years after it was published by Annick Press.

The book has sold 50,000 copies, a very large number for a children's book.

The unflinching residential school memoir was the fifth best selling children's book in Canada in May, right behind The Paper Bag Princess.

Top selling Canadian children's book

It's ranked as the top-selling Canadian children's book on Amazon.ca, while all four books are in the top 20.

"The audience it's reaching is overwhelming," said Christy Jordan-Fenton, who wrote the books with her mother-in-law, Margaret (Olemaun) Pokiak-Fenton.

Entertaining, factual, and complex, the four books about Pokiak-Fenton's life have been added to school curriculum, translated into French and Korean, and performed on stage.

The authors also sell the books at their local farmers' market, near their farm in Baldonnel, B.C.

And they bring their stories to schoolchildren in Canada and the United States through Skype workshops and readings.

'I would probably cry myself to sleep every night' - elementary student

At a reading at a small country school near Fort St. John, B.C. elementary students sat on the carpeted library floor and listened, spellbound, to a very personal account of a sad chapter in Canadian history.

Margaret

Margaret Pokiak-Fenton reads story of her life at residential school to an attentive audience at a country school in northern B.C. (Betsy Trumpener)

Pokiak-Fenton told the students she'd actually begged to go to residential school because she wanted to learn to read.

Despite her father's opposition, she finally convinced him to send her to school far from their high Arctic trapping and hunting grounds on Banks Island, N.W.T.

Within two days of arriving, Pokiak-Fenton told them she was desperate to return home.

But she didn't see her parents again for two years.

By then, she could no longer communicate with her mother, who didn't speak English and no longer recognized her own daughter.

"I would probably cry myself to sleep every night," said one young student in the audience.

"I'd look at the moon and say, 'Goodnight, Mom', all the day, all the time. I can't even go to my grandparents' house and they live just across the field from me," said another girl.

"When we were supposed to go to sleep, I'd probably just say my language over and over, and my traditions," added a third student.

'I couldn't understand why it was secret'

Pokiak-Fenton said she'd never spoken about her experiences until her daughter-in-law started asking.

"I just would never talk about anything like that, but Christy kinda opened me up. She wanted to write a book about it, and I said, 'No, you can't!'", said Pokiak-Fenton.

"She was always asking me. And I just couldn't get to do it. Every time I started thinking, I kind of relived it and it's really hard," said Pokiak-Fenton.

But her daughter-in-law's persistence finally paid off.

"We live  outside of Fort St John, so when we're driving in to town, I'd get her to tell me stories," said Jordan-Fenton. "I was always bothering her to tell me more about their Inuvialuit culture. I wanted my children to be very proud of who they are," she added.

Authors

The authors of a best-selling children's series about residential school life read to students at a country school in northern B.C. (Betsy Trumpener)

One day, Pokiak-Fenton opened up on the long drive. "They used to call me Fatty Legs. I went to residential school and a mean nun gave me these horrible red stockings," she told her daughter-in-law.

Resilience and Triumph

Jordan-Fenton was born to non-Indigenous parents but her step-father attended residential school. "I grew up in a home where there was a lot of fallout from residential school, but no talking about it, and no understanding," said Jordan-Fenton. "I couldn't understand why it was a secret and why so many people didn't know."

When she heard her mother-in-law's story, she recognized a tale that would help explain residential school to children and help them to see "resilience and triumph" in a school survivor, said Jordan-Fenton.

"Actually, it is good to talk it over," said Pokiak-Fenton, who hopes her books will help other survivors and their families.

"They say, 'No one has ever known what it was like, [or] had it written down'. The next generation would buy the book, so they can try and understand how their parents were," said Pokiak-Fenton.