Author Christy Jordan-Fenton got the inspiration for her true stories When I Was Eight ($9.95, Annick Press, Ages 6-9) and Fatty Legs: A True Story ($12.95, Annick Press, Ages 9 and up) from her mother-in-law, Margaret Pokiak-Fenton. Both books are based upon the story of Margaret’s experience at a residential school as a child – When I Was Eight is a picture book, while Fatty Legs is a chapter book.

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The Story

Margaret is a tall, curious Inuit girl from Banks Island, situated high above the Arctic Circle. After her older sister, Rosie, returns from a year at a residential school far from home in the Inuvik Region of the Northwest Territories, Canada, Margaret begs her parents to let her attend school, too. She so desperately wants to learn to read, but Rosie warns Margaret of the cruel nuns who cut her hair and made her do chores relentlessly. Yet still, Margaret eventually talks her parents into letting her attend the school after her eighth birthday.

On her first day there, Margaret quickly learns her sister was right, as the nuns make her cut off her braids and do chores. She misses her family desperately, hates the food and wonders why she ever wanted to attend in the first place. One witch-like nun in particular, named the Raven, singles strong-willed Margaret out and makes her do more chores than the others girls and is very unfair and cruel to her. Part of the girls’ uniform requires that they wear thick stockings to keep their legs warm. But one day, the Raven passes out grey stockings to all the girls in the school except for Margaret, who is forced to wear bulky, bright red stockings. The other girls laugh and torment Margaret, calling her, “Fatty Legs.” But rather than suffer any longer, Margaret does something unusually brave to stand up for herself.

When I Was Eight

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The picture book offers younger readers a simpler, less detailed version of the story, yet depicts Margaret’s fears and challenges at the school incredibly well. I like that the book introduces different cultures and places to young readers and shares the universal theme that we all experience both as children and adults – fitting in.  It also delves deep into the importance of being able to read well. The illustrations by Gabrielle Grimard are excellent and original in style, adding great dimension to the story.

Fatty Legs

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The more I read the chapter book, the more hooked I got on the story. Without sugar-coating the truth about Margaret’s emotional abuse by the Raven, the author tells the story in a way that’s easy to understand, so real, yet not too terrifying for the targeted age of the readers. Margaret’s courage and determination to learn will make readers feel extra close to this likable protagonist and will be able to relate their own personal challenges to hers in some way.

It would be extra special to buy both of these affordable books for your child so he or she could read the picture book in early elementary school and the chapter book when a bit older. The fact that these wonderful, culturally rich books are based upon a true story make them treasures worth keeping.

– Reviewed by Debbie Glade

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