the secret pocket: children's books on residential schools, reading for reconciliation, and other library things

This post started as a standard "what i'm reading" post. But as I thought about it, I realized that it touches on several other themes that are important to me: history, Reconciliation, libraries, readers' advisory... and maybe some others I'm not seeing yet.

The Secret Pocket

In September, for National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, I was updating a list of children's books about residential schools, and found The Secret Pocket, by Peggy Janicki. It immediately became my favourite children's book about the residential school experience.

The Secret Pocket tells the story -- in the first person -- of a Dakelh girl who was taken away from her family when she was four years old. She is brought to a place far away from her home, where the children are always hungry and cold. The girls are forbidden to speak their own language, and are frequently punished -- often by the withholding of food.

The older girls sew hidden pockets into their clothes. They secretly gather materials and sew at night, then use the pockets to hide pieces of apples, carrots, and bread to share with the younger girls, and the girls who are hungriest.

In the Dakelh culture before contact, sewing skills were passed down through generations of women. The girls who were a bit older when they were forcibly removed from their families already had this knowledge. So not only were they helping to feed each other, they were keeping a piece of their culture alive.  

The Secret Pocket records and preserves the stories that the author's mother told her about her own experience -- a story of courageous, creative, and collective resistance. I highly recommend it to all adult readers as well as children. 

How to talk to kids about...

Canadian schools now teach about Canada's colonization of Indigenous people, and about the Residential Schools, at every grade level. It's about time! My Canadian-born friends never learned about this when they were growing up. Many of them lived right near a Residential School but never knew about the genocidal system that they represented, let alone what went on behind the prison walls. 

Many people I know are particularly upset at learning that Duncan Campbell Scott was one of the principal architects of the system that vowed to "kill the Indian in the child". (Apparently this phrase is falsely attributed to Scott. Nevertheless, he created the system that tried to make it a reality.) In school, my Canadian friends and co-workers learned about Scott as a celebrated Canadian poet. They learned about his dark legacy as adults, through Reconciliation education through their workplaces. 

(Incidentally, those three names -- Duncan, Campbell, and Scott -- are found all over Vancouver Island place-names. I hope one day those names will be expunged, and places returned to their ancestral names.)

Reconciliation education stands in stark contrast to so many school districts in the United States that are no longer teaching about slavery. This choice is truly Orwellian, even surreal. And so indicative of the progress of the fascist state.

There are ways to talk with children about difficult topics, in age-appropriate ways. I'm no student of education, so I'm not well-versed in method and curricula, but I see it taking place all around me. 

Reading for Reconciliation

For non-Canadian readers, Reconciliation is the process of educating ourselves about the historical (and ongoing) colonization and oppression of the Indigenous people who live in what is now called Canada, and finding ways to create more equity and justice. 

This work is happening in workplaces, schools, unions, churches, and other organizations, and it is also happening on a personal level. Individual Canadians are taking responsibility for learning, and to the extent that we can, for decolonizing our lives. The 94 Calls to Action created by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission provide a framework for this. 

Obviously not every Canadian cares about this, and a certain percentage of the non-Indigenous population is blatantly hostile to the idea. But evidence also shows that huge numbers of non-Indigenous Canadians care deeply about this and are finding ways to participate in acts of Reconciliation.

One of the ways that Canadians further their own Reconciliation journeys is through reading. Books written by Indigenous authors, both fiction and nonfiction, for every age group and nearly every genre, are burgeoning in sales, libraries, and book clubs. I find this especially heartening when I consider that much of the subject matter in these books is disturbing -- and many people (unfortunately, in my view) avoid reading anything with disturbing content. 

I want to note that in Indigenous Relations: Insights, Tips & Suggestions to Make Reconciliation a Reality, author Bob Joseph lists reading work by Indigenous authors as a tangible act of Reconciliation.

If you have not already done so, I highly recommend reading Joseph's 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act. It's a short, highly accessible book, and my number one pick for beginning Reconciliation awareness. Here's a very good interview with Bob Joseph in The Tyee.


Many library systems, including mine, offer booklists -- lists curated by librarians, grouped by subgenre, age group, or subject matter, to highlight hidden gems and help customers choose titles.

Booklists are an important form of readers' advisory. Staffing levels -- in every library in North America -- are very low, and in many libraries, there may be no professional staff who have been trained in readers' advisory. Even if staff are available, many customers won't ask for reading recommendations, for various reasons. So most libraries offer various forms of passive readers' advisory. Booklists are a part of that. 

In our system, lists are created by any staff who have an interest. A call goes out, staff sign up for topics within an audience group (adult, youth, or children), or suggest creative list ideas. We put our annotated picks into a template, so the lists have a uniform look and feel. Our lists are always diverse and current, and many are really creative.

I love readers' advisory, and my position doesn't give me much opportunity to keep those skills alive, so when the call goes out, I always raise my hand. It's an opportunity "to librarian". Right now I'm working on two adult lists -- current travel memoirs, and memoirs and biographies. I almost always choose nonfiction lists, with one exception: I love the challenge of creating diverse lists of modern classics. I also sometimes contribute to lists of children's books, which is how I found The Secret Pocket.

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