The new National Day for Truth and Reconciliation is this week (Friday, September 30). While Orange Shirt Day has raised awareness of residential school experiences in Canada since 2013, this is the first year it is being observed as an official national holiday.
The federal government announced the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation after the confirmation of at least 215 children’s graves at the former Kamloops residential school on Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation territory. Similar graves were subsequently confirmed across the country. Over 1,300 have now been found, though many former school sites have yet to be searched.
For some people, the evidence of these graves changed their understanding of Canadian history. For others, it confirmed a truth they already knew too well.
You may be wondering what to say to your children about this day, or how to observe it in your home.
One simple but powerful way to do this is through story. While it may seem like a small act, storytelling can be a meaningful way to educate, inspire, and share experiences.
This list of 10 wonderful books includes a variety of narratives from Indigenous authors based in Canada. Some of them share residential school experiences, others communicate wise teachings, and others are good stories well told. Why not pick one up this week?
For Preschool to Kindergarten
Trudy’s Healing Stone by Trudy Spiller, Illustrated by Jessika von Innerbner
This heart-warming book teaches a simple but powerful practice that children (and adults) can use to let go of difficult emotions.
Told in verse, it shows a young girl (Trudy) finding a special stone in nature, then keeping it with her. She tells the stone all of her biggest feelings, then returns it to the natural world.
*The book Trudy’s Rock Story tells a fuller version of the same narrative for children in Grades 1-4.
The Circle of Caring and Sharing by Theresa Larsen-Jonasson, Illustrated by Jessika von Innerbner
Fox friends Morningstar and River love playing together, but when they have a fight, their entire community is affected. A buffalo asks Kokum the owl for help, who recommends a sharing circle to help heal the rift.
This gentle story acknowledges that even the best of friends can have trouble getting along, and shows a way back to harmony.
*The book The Sharing Circle tells a fuller version of the same story for children in Grades 1-4.
For Grades 1-4
The Orange Shirt Story by Phyllis Webstad, Illustrated by Brock Nicol
The story that inspired Orange Shirt Day. It is a first-hand account of Phyllis Webstad’s experience at the Williams Lake Indian Residential School at St. Joseph's Mission, on traditional Secwépemc territory.
Phyllis is eager to attend school with her older friends and cousins. Her grandmother buys Phyllis a beautiful new orange shirt for the first day. But when Phyllis arrives at the school, the nuns take it away from her forever. This begins Phyllis’ journey in a strange, harsh world.
This book is a perfect introduction to the history of residential schools in Canada. It describes some of the cruelty inflicted on children in the schools, with young readers in mind.
*The book Phyllis’ Orange Shirt tells the same story adapted for children in Preschool-Kindergarten.
Secret of the Dance by Andrea Spalding and Alfred Scow, Illustrated by Darlene Gait
A fictional retelling of a potlach ceremony held in 1935 as a memorial for Alfred Scow’s grandfather. Potlach and all other Indigenous ceremonies were outlawed from 1885-1951. As a result, this potlach had to be kept secret.
Secret of the Dance introduces us to potlach from the perspective of young Alfred (Watl’kina). Through his eyes, we see the magic of the ceremony, and the risks people took to participate in it.
Go Show the World: A Celebration of Indigenous Heroes by Wab Kinew, Illustrated by Joe Morse
Inspired by Barak Obama’s picture book, Of Thee I Sing, Wab Kinew has written an inspiring book of his own, celebrating Indigenous heroes.
Written as a rap song, Go Show the World is rhythmic and playful. It highlights 13 heroes across time, from Shawnee leader Tecumseh to NHL goalie Carey Price. Although the main part of the book touches on some of their stories very briefly, biographies of each hero at the end give more detailed information.
For Grades 5-9
Fatty Legs: A True Story by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret-Olemaun Pokiak-Fenton, Illustrated by Liz Amini-Holmes
Olemaun Pokiak lives in the Arctic with her family. She is happy, but there is one thing she wants more than anything – to learn to read. Even though her parents don’t want to send her to the residential school in Aklavik, Olemaun convinces them to let her go. Fatty Legs shares her experiences at the school.
The character of Olemaun (later Margaret) is the heart of this book. Stubborn and strong-willed, she deals with some extremely harsh people and circumstances while retaining her sense of self.
*The book When I Was Eight tells the same story adapted for children in Grades 1-4.
The Peacemaker: Thanadelthur by David A. Robertson, Illustrated by Wai Tien
This graphic novel tells the story of Thanadelthur, a Dene woman who overcame enormous hardships to help forge a peace treaty between the Nehiyawak (Cree) and Dene peoples in 1715-1716.
David A. Robertson’s strong storytelling, along with Wai Tien’s vivid illustrations bring the characters to life, and even explain why they are relevant today.
This book is one of a 7-part series called “Tales from Big Spirit” (published by Highwater Press) that highlights other Indigenous heroes including Pauline Johnson and Gabriel Dumont.
The Ghost Collector by Allison Mills
Shelly lives with her mother and grandmother. They all share a gift – they can see ghosts, and help them move on. Trouble arises when Shelly has a hard time letting go.
Even though this book is full of ghosts, they aren’t the frightening beings of horror stories. Instead, ghosts are people (and animals) who need a helping hand. The Ghost Collector is ultimately a touching story about love and loss.
The Case of Windy Lake by Michael Hutchinson
Cousins Sam, Otter, Atim, and Chickadee are cousins with a taste for adventure. When an archeologist goes missing on the Windy Lake First Nation, they set out to solve the mystery.
The Case of Windy Lake is one of a series of books about these cousins (known as the Mighty Muskrats). It’s an intriguing mystery that also deals with larger issues, like the tension between activists and miners on First Nations’ land.
For the Grown-Ups (and Grades 10+)
Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese
Children aren’t the only ones who can benefit from reading stories by Indigenous authors. If you haven’t read Richard Wagamese’s classic Indian Horse, now may be the perfect time.
The novel follows Saul Indian Horse from his early years living with his grandmother and parents on the land, through residential school, and beyond. Even though the subject matter is dark, there is much joy and love in the novel, with a focus on Saul’s resilience and strength.
Have you read any of these books? What books by Indigenous authors are on your shelf? Let us know in the comments!