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 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.
Kacer (The Magician of Auschwitz, also illustrated by Newland) and educator Dupuis unflinchingly recount a story from the childhood of Dupuis's grandmother, one of some 150,000 Canadian First Nations children relocated to residential schools as part of an assimilation policy. Irene Couchie and two brothers were taken from their family in 1928 to attend a Catholic boarding school. She was assigned a number in lieu of her name, her long hair was unceremoniously cut, and a nun physically abused her for speaking her native language ("even though the red sores had now turned pink, the memory of the punishment had not faded one bit"). The story never shies from the harsh treatment Irene endured, peaking dramatically when the children hide from the agent coming to collect them for a second school year. They were among the lucky ones whose parents took a stand and refused to return them. Most spreads feature a full page of first-person narrative opposite Newland's somber watercolors. An afterword discusses Canada's history with the residential school program (and recent government apologies for it) and provides additional details about her grandmother's life. Ages 7 11.