When I Was Eight written by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton and illustrated by Gabrielle Grimard

When I Was Eight coverAt eight years old, Olemaun helps with the sled dogs and her father’s hunting. Sometimes, her older sister reads her stories. But what Olemaun really wants to do is learn to read books for herself. She knows that you have to go to the outsiders’ residential school to do so, but it takes all winter to convince her father to let her go. When it’s finally warm enough to take the family’s furs into town for trading, Olemaun joyfully begins school — and discovers that not only will most of her time be spent working rather than learning, but one of the nuns has developed a personal grudge against her.

But Olemaun — now Margaret — is determined. She turns the same tenacity that got her into school to the task of getting her through it. Along the way, she takes every opportunity, from cluttered chalkboards to product labels, to practice her reading. In the process, she finds out that reading, and the stories it opens to her, give her resources to take on such challenges with confidence.

When I Was Eight is based on Margaret Pokiak-Fenton’s own childhood experiences, and it does a beautiful job of making a difficult part of Canadian history accessible to very young readers. The story calls for some discussion with an adult in order to provide context, but it also makes space for positive conversations about the value of reading, and of tenacity in working for the things that are important to us.

If you’d like to share Olemaun’s story with older readers, check out Fatty Legs, which tells the story at a middle grade level, and includes photographs from Margaret Pokiak-Fenton’s childhood at home and at the residential school.

See samples of Grimard’s gorgeous illustrations on the publisher’s page (just click “look inside” on the right side of the screen).

Find out what others thought at Kiss the Book and CM Magazine.

Thanks to NetGalley and Annick Press for the review copy.

The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson

The Name of the Star coverWhen Rory Deveaux’s parents are invited to teach in Bristol for a year, they give Rory the chance to decide where she wants to take her final year of high school: at home in New Orleans, with them in Bristol, or somewhere else that strikes her fancy. Rory chooses Wexford, a boarding school in London, where she lucks out with a great roommate, gets talked into joining field hockey by the boisterous Claudia, and learns to handle the heavy academic expectations with the help of mysterious boy-in-the-stacks, Alistair. A year at Wexford also puts Rory in the middle of a London obsessed with a new Jack the Ripper — a killer fixed on recreating the five murders committed in the fall of 1888. Add in the facts that Rory’s actually seen the killer, and that, apparently, no one else can, and that classic boarding school story is now a mystery that keeps the pages turning.

While I like mysteries and boarding school stories, I’m not a big fan of ghost stories, and so I’d passed over this one until now. I saw so many intriguing comments about the second book in the series on Twitter, though, that I thought I’d give The Name of the Star a try after all. I’m glad I did. Ghosts may figure prominently in the story, but I never felt like the supernatural element was the point of the novel. Whether a character is alive or dead, Johnson’s emphasis is on his or her humanity: history, character, and choices. Rather than cheap thrills, then, the ghosts provide the premise for an engaging story that I think will appeal to many others who also tend to skip ghost stories.

Read a review from Great Imaginations or Kirkus.

Read an article by Maureen Johnson on the value of “dark” YA literature (not a new topic, but always an interesting one. Plus, I love reading what authors I like have to say about literature!).