Allison's Book Bag

When I Was Eight by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton

Posted on: June 30, 2014

When I Was Eight by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton is an adaptation of Fatty Legs, in which Olemaun recollects her negative experiences in a church-run residential school. Because I have read both books, as I review When I Was Eight, I will also be comparing and contrasting the two versions.

I’ll start with what I liked about When I Was Eight. The well-crafted writing style stands out more in When I Was Eight. There are many active verbs, such as “shrugged” and “begged”. In addition, there’s a lot of figurative language, such as “the sun slept” and “slumbering ice”. The strong word choices exist in Fatty Legs too, but they feel more prevalent and significant in a picture book. When I Was Eight would make for an excellent mentor text in elementary schools.

When I Was Eight is also more focused than Fatty Legs. The latter is about Olemaun (Margaret’s Inuit name) and her family, her friends, her desire to read, her conflicts with a mean nun and brother, and more. In contrast, When I Was Eight is solely about Oleman’s determination to read enabling her to withstand all forms of abuse from a nameless nun. In fact, the story is so tightly told that it develops a fairy tale quality, where the young heroine must battle an evil grown-up. Because of its overt theme, teachers could use When I Was Eight to help reluctant readers see how the power of books can change them.

Next, I’ll turn to what I didn’t like about When I Was Eight. Due to the brevity of text required of a picture book, some important details were left out. For example, When I Was Eight tells readers that Olemaun enters the laundry room, stands beside a huge vat, and then “gets an idea” about how to get rid of the red stockings. In contrast, Fatty Legs tells readers tells how a tear vanishing into bubbling water gives her that idea.

In my review of Fatty Legs, I highlighted its realistic characters because sometimes books that depict atrocities resort to portraying all of the “enemy” as evil but Fatty Legs avoided that trap. Well…. as I review When I Was Eight has eliminated the friend who provided support to Olemaun, and the kind nun, and really anyone who seemed nice. Instead Olemaun is on her own in her determination to read.

Some critics have lamented the absence of a historical note in as I review When I Was Eight . I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, in Fatty Legs I greatly appreciated the scrapbook and other supplementary material that provided context for the story. I ended up wanting to read more Inuit stories. On the other hand, the historical notes meant while reading Fatty Legs I remained keenly aware that I was learning about a real time and a real place. Whereas, as I noted above, When I Was Eight was more like a fairy tale.

Both approaches serve a purpose, as does having two versions that are intended for different readers. Each book provides a glimpse into the way of life of the Inuit, while also containing an inspiring universal message. There are two more books in the set, another chapter and picture book combo. It’ll be interesting to see what Christy Jordan-Fenton writes next about her mother-in-law’s experiences of growing up Inuit.

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?

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