10 Children's Books About Residential Schools

Conversations have been happening in homes and classrooms across Canada and the United States since the remains of 215 Indigenous children buried at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School were found.  At the time of this post, nearly 1,000 bodies have been found and that number is expected to rise as the grounds of more residential schools in Canada and the United States get searched.  Parents and teachers are finding themselves fielding some hard questions from their children...  Why were these children taken from their homes?  Why were they forced to go to these schools?  Why were they treated so badly there?  Why didn't they all get to go home?

Explaining that Indigenous children were forcibly taken from their families and put into residential schools where they were abused and prohibited from speaking their languages or expressing their culture requires both delicacy and honesty, according to experts.

Listed below are 10 children's books and Youtube videos written specifically to help children answer some of these difficult questions.  Many of these books are written by residential school survivors or their descendants.  All of these books were written before 2021... long before the remains of the original 215 children were found.

A compilation of children's books about Indigenous Residential Schools in the United States and Canada. Native American. First Nations. #ownvoices

Disclosure: Affiliate links to Amazon are included in this post.

Gaawin Gindaaswin Ndaawsii: I Am Not a Number by Dr. Jenny Kay Dupuis and Kathy Kacer

The dual-language edition, in Nishnaabemwin (Ojibwe) Nbisiing dialect and English, of the award-winning I Am Not a Number. When eight-year-old Irene is removed from her First Nations family to live in a residential school she is confused, frightened, and terribly homesick. She tries to remember who she is and where she came from, despite the efforts of the nuns who are in charge at the school and who tell her that she is not to use her own name but instead use the number they have assigned to her. When she goes home for the summer holidays, Irene's parents decide never to send her and her brothers away again. But where will they hide? And what will happen when her parents disobey the law? Based on the life of co-author Jenny Kay Dupuis’ grandmother, I Am Not a Number is a hugely necessary book that brings a terrible part of Canada’s history to light in a way that children can learn from and relate to.

🍎 Title: Gaawin Gindaaswin Ndaawsii: I Am Not a Number
🍎 Authors: Dr. Jenny Kay Dupuis and Kathy Kacer
🍎 Illustrator: Gillian Newland
🍎 Publisher: Second Story Press
🍎 Date: September 10, 2019
🍎 Pages: 44

When We Were Alone by David A. Robertson

When a young girl helps tend to her grandmother’s garden, she begins to notice things that make her curious. Why does her grandmother have long, braided hair and beautifully colored clothing? Why does she speak another language and spend so much time with her family? As she asks her grandmother about these things, she is told about life in a residential school a long time ago, where all of these things were taken away. When We Were Alone is a story about a difficult time in history, and, ultimately, one of empowerment and strength.  Also available in a bilingual Swampy Cree/English edition.

🍎 Title: When We Were Alone
🍎 Author: David A. Robertson
🍎 Illustrator: Julie Flett
🍎 Publisher: HighWater Press
🍎 Date: December 1, 2016
🍎 Pages: 32

When I Was Eight by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton

Olemaun is eight and knows a lot of things. But she does not know how to read. Ignoring her father’s warnings, she travels far from her Arctic home to the outsiders’ school to learn. The nuns at the school call her Margaret. They cut off her long hair and force her to do menial chores, but she remains undaunted. Her tenacity draws the attention of a black-cloaked nun who tries to break her spirit at every turn. But the young girl is more determined than ever to learn how to read. Based on the true story of Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, and complemented by stunning illustrations, When I Was Eight makes the bestselling Fatty Legs accessible to younger readers. Now they, too, can meet this remarkable girl who reminds us what power we hold when we can read.

🍎 Title: When I Was Eight
🍎 Authors: Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton
🍎 Illustrator: Gabrielle Grimard
🍎 Publisher: Annick Press
🍎 Date: February 1, 2013
🍎 Pages: 32

Not My Girl by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton

Margaret can’t wait to see her family, but her homecoming is not what she expected. Based on the true story of Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, and complemented by evocative illustrations, Not My Girl makes the original, award-winning memoir, A Stranger at Home, accessible to younger children. It is also a sequel to the picture book When I Was Eight. A poignant story of a determined young girl’s struggle to belong, it will both move and inspire readers everywhere.

🍎 Title: Not My Girl
🍎 Authors: Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton
🍎 Illustrator: Gabrielle Grimard
🍎 Publisher: Annick Press
🍎 Date: January 9, 2014
🍎 Pages: 36

Stolen Words by Melanie Florence

The story of the beautiful relationship between a little girl and her grandfather. When she asks her grandfather how to say something in his language – Cree – he admits that his language was stolen from him when he was a boy. The little girl then sets out to help her grandfather find his language again. This sensitive and warmly illustrated picture book explores the intergenerational impact of the residential school system that separated young Indigenous children from their families. The story recognizes the pain of those whose culture and language were taken from them, how that pain is passed down, and how healing can also be shared.

🍎 Title: Stolen Words
🍎 Authors: Melanie Florence
🍎 Illustrator: Gabrielle Grimard
🍎 Publisher: Annick Press
🍎 Date: January 9, 2014
🍎 Pages: 36

Shi-Shi-Etko by Nicole Campbell

In just four days young Shi-shi-etko will have to leave her family and all that she knows to attend residential school. She spends her last days at home treasuring the beauty of her world -- the dancing sunlight, the tall grass, each shiny rock, the tadpoles in the creek, her grandfather's paddle song. Her mother, father, and grandmother, each in turn, share valuable teachings that they want her to remember. And so Shi-shi-etko carefully gathers her memories for safekeeping.

🍎 Title: Shi-Shi-Etko
🍎 Authors: Nicole Campbell
🍎 Illustrator: Kim LaFave
🍎 Publisher: Groundwork Books
🍎 Date: August 9, 2005
🍎 Pages: 32

Shin-Chi's Canoe by Nicole Campbell

When they arrive at school, Shi-shi-etko reminds Shinchi, her six-year-old brother, that they can only use their English names and that they can't speak to each other. For Shinchi, life becomes an endless cycle of church mass, school, and work, punctuated by skimpy meals. He finds solace at the river, clutching a tiny cedar canoe, a gift from his father, and dreaming of the day when the salmon return to the river — a sign that it’s almost time to return home. This poignant story about a devastating chapter in First Nations history is told at a child’s level of understanding.

🍎 Title: Shin-Chi's Canoe
🍎 Author: Nicole Campbell
🍎 Illustrator: Kim LaFave
🍎 Publisher: Groundwork Books
🍎 Date: December 2, 2008
🍎 Pages: 40

Phyllis's Orange Shirt Story by Phyllis Webstad

When Phyllis Webstad turned six, she went to residential school for the first time. On her first day at school, she wore a shiny orange shirt that her granny had bought for her, but when she got to the school, it was taken away from her and never returned. This is the true story of Phyllis and her orange shirt. It is also the story of Orange Shirt Day (an important day of remembrance for Indigenous people and all Canadians).

🍎 Author: Phyllis Webstad
🍎 Illustrator: Broc Nicol
🍎 Publisher: Medicine Wheel Education
🍎 Date: August 1, 2019
🍎 Pages: 28

The Train by Jodie Callaghan

Ashley meets her great-uncle by the old train tracks near their community in Nova Scotia. Ashley sees his sadness, and Uncle tells her of the day years ago when he and the other children from their community were told to board the train before being taken to residential school where their lives were changed forever. They weren't allowed to speak Mi'gmaq and were punished if they did. There was no one to give them love and hugs and comfort. Uncle also tells Ashley how happy she and her sister make him. They are what give him hope. Ashley promises to wait with her uncle by the train tracks, in remembrance of what was lost.

🍎 Title: The Train
🍎 Authors: Jodie Callaghan
🍎 Illustrator: Georgia Lesley
🍎 Publisher: Medicine Wheel Education
🍎 Date: August 1, 2019
🍎 Pages: 28

Speaking Our Truth: A Journey of Reconciliation by Monique Gray Smith

Canada's relationship with its Indigenous people has suffered as a result of both the residential school system and the lack of understanding of the historical and current impact of those schools. Healing and repairing that relationship requires education, awareness, and increased understanding of the legacy and the impacts still being felt by Survivors and their families. Guided by acclaimed Indigenous author Monique Gray Smith, readers will learn about the lives of Survivors and listen to allies who are putting the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission into action.

🍎 Author: Monique Gray Smith
🍎 Publisher: Orca Book Publishers
🍎 Date: September 19, 2017
🍎 Pages: 160

Speaking Our Truth: A Journey of Reconciliation by Monique Gray Smith

Award-winning author, speaker, and consultant Monique Gray Smith recently posted a video about how to talk with children about assimilation, residential schools, and how to answer some of your children's difficult... and sometimes painful... questions.  She also provides a list of additional books for you to read with your children.

Did you enjoy learning about these children's books about residential schools? If so, check out these blog posts about other aspects of American history:

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