I rarely feel bad about sitting on a review for a while. They come when they come. This post I do feel a bit bad about leaving on a burner for two reasons: a) I think it’s very topical right now and has been for a while, b) Nimbus sent me these books some months ago, and I intended to review them quickly.
However, I’m done apologizing for one very important reason: This was not a post to rush. These are books regarding which I am far from expert, and I am the student here, not the teacher. To do them justice, I needed time to think and digest, and I needed time to read sensitively. My approach here is as a parent-reader and a lover of poetry and art. I can claim to have some authority when it comes to a reading of The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander, rooted in the literature of medieval Wales. I am not, nor have I ever been, an expert in Mi’kmaw history or literature, and I respond to these two books humbly, not authoritatively.
The books they sent are two companion books, so I’m reviewing them together: I Lost My Talk by Rita Joe, illustrated by Pauline Young and I’m Finding My Talk by Rebecca Thomas, illustrated by Pauline Young. (Those link to Nimbus: if you’re in the USA, here are links to buy from the Children’s Book Shop’s online portal: I Lost My Talk and I’m Finding My Talk.)
First: Note the beauty of those two covers side by side. Nimbus deserves kudos, in my view, for the close attention to detail in their design process. These books were designed to work together, and they really, really do. It is, and it should be, impossible to get one without the other. Other notes: the design is lovely but a bit deliberately “rough” in the sense of “durable, useful.” They’re jacketless, the covers are matte rather than glossy, and the colours are a bit dusty and muted. There’s nothing gentle and ethereal here: the beauty is nuanced, evoking both pain and durability from the get-go. The Nimbus team deserves absolute respect for getting how to present these books from first meeting of book and reader.
Now, if you aren’t Canadian, the name “Rita Joe” might mean nothing to you. Sadly, even if you are Canadian, the name might be unfamiliar. That’s on us, I’m going to say, bluntly, for not respecting the authority and voice of one of our most extraordinary poets– and she was extraordinary, as you’ll find in the first of these books. I’m giving you this brief biography, but of course there’s always more. Relevant here is that Rita was taken to the Shubenacadie Residential School after she was orphaned at age 10. She was there for six years, enduring physical and mental abuse, forbidden to speak her own language.
How do you transform a story of so much pain into something that can be shared with children? Separation, isolation, trauma, abuse? Well, Rita Joe fought, grew, survived, and turned trauma into poetry. She’s direct in her poetry: “You snatched it away,” she says bluntly, and “I speak like you, I think like you” (your heart breaks at that, or it should), but she ultimately asks, “Let me find my talk so I can teach you about me,” and a child can, well-taught, understand that request.
The art to accompany this poem is hauntingly perfect: the drab muddy sameness of the residential school feels like a sepia toned photograph dropped in a puddle of grief. The emerging clarity towards the end merges nature and an urban environment on the other side of the school, as the poet comes forward to find her talk and share her story.
I want to talk about the backmatter to that volume, but first let’s talk about I’m Finding My Talk, by Rebecca Thomas, also illustrated by Mi’kmaw artist, Pauline Young.
This poem delicately continues the story in the first book, without overtaking it. The poet is still straightforward, but perhaps more vulnerable, uprooted: she’s looking for the talk the schools took away before she was even born, stolen from her father. “One word at a time,” she looks, citing words: “Kwe, Wela’lin, Nmultes.” She speaks to family and makes new friends, looking for that talk all the time: she seeks through her feet and stitches and beads, through ritual and community, through people young and old, and through her relationship with her father, “But I’m learning to speak in a language that’s mine.”
It’s that final line, the claim that it’s hers, that choked me up as a reader. That’s the story that resonated with me in Wales, as locals learned their historic language. Too many of us laugh at that: “Who needs that language? English has won.” Well, that’s an old story, isn’t it? I want to say to Rebecca Thomas: I hear you, that’s your talk, that’s your language. I’m glad she’s claiming it, and sharing her fight to do so.
The art in this book is, apart from the opening page reference back to her father’s residential school experience, brighter and more vibrant than in Rita Joe’s I Lost My Talk, which makes perfect sense and rounds out the journey from grimness to nuanced optimism. It has a dreamlike, aspirational quality: We’re not there yet, it says, but we’re working on it.
I promised a note on the backmatter. I Lost My Talk includes, at the end, backmatter on the history of residential schools. This is where I’m talking to parents, directly. If your kid is an avid reader, and young, you want to read this first and be very well prepared. It is, like the poem, straightforward, but being prose history, it’s going to be hard for a younger kid to handle (I know my 7-year-old couldn’t deal with it on her own): the backmatter references not only the forced assimilation and brutality but the deaths by disease, illness, and suicide. It hides nothing. It points out, accurately, the abuse and that those who emerged were not graduates, they were survivors, pushed out into the world with no support, no community, no family, no money– nothing but trauma and misery. I do not offer this as critique: this is history, and we need to face this. But you, as parent or teacher, have to figure out how to communicate this with honesty and age-appropriateness to your children and students, and I strongly suggest reading the backmatter carefully.
This is the time for these books. Well, no: it’s past time. I wish I’d seen them as a student, myself, but I’m glad they’re out there now, at a time Canadians are reckoning with our past and present– and choosing future directions. It’s time Rita Joe was allowed to speak directly to us, children and adults alike, and that Rebecca Thomas was given the chance to bring her sequel to us, too. I thank Nimbus for sending me these books. I encourage you, all of you, to get your own copies, examine them, read them, and think about what we’re being told.