Wednesday, September 14, 2011


Written by Nicola I. Campbell 

Illustrated by Kim LaFave 

(Groundwood Books, 2008) 

The cover illustration for Shin-chi’s Canoe caught my eye as I browsed in my favorite children’s bookstore in Vancouver. I leafed through the book and felt that every page was a work of art, worthy of framing and display in a major exhibition. Artist Kim LaFave’s process begins with pencil sketches that are scanned to the computer and digitally colored with Corel Painter and Photoshop. The results are breathtaking. 

But beyond the art, there is a tale to be told. This book tells the story of a school year, from getting ready for the first day to arriving home after the last. What is different for young readers is the learning occurs at a residential school, far from Shin-chi and sister Shi-shi-etko’s family. During the school year, the siblings are not allowed to speak to each other, they must adopt English names and they are forbidden from speaking their first language. English only. They are not allowed to go home on weekends or for holidays. The children go to school half the day and work the rest of the day. 

Shin-chi, by the way, is six years old. 

 Yes, as noted in author Nicola Campbell’s foreword, this is a story that touches on attempts to colonize Native populations, beginning
in the late 1800s and continuing until late in the 20th century. It is a topic that could be explained in a heavy-handed manner, but Campbell takes a gentler approach, allowing the reader to make his or how own inferences and ask his or her own questions. (Campbell is Interior Salish and Métis. Many of her family members attended residential schools.) 

Before the siblings leave their family, Shi-shi-etko recalls how her long braids were cut off and her head washed in kerosene when she arrived at school the previous year. This time, she asks her grandmother to cut her hair. Children must infer why. Afterwards, she goes “up the mountain to put (the children’s) braids away.” Again, it is left to the reader to imagine what that might look like. 

At school, the children eat small portions of porridge and burnt toast while the teachers dine on bacon, eggs and potatoes. Later, Shi-chi and a new friend steal food. This provides another opportunity to stretch children’s thinking. Why would the boys steal? Are they bad? Is stealing ever okay? 

This is yet another picture book that could be read by people of different ages with older readers getting more from the text. Learning about reality through story helps make history lessons memorable.

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