Little Kids

15 books that teach kids about residential schools

It’s estimated that 150,000 kids were sent to residential schools, and that legacy of neglect, lack of education and abuse is still being felt today.

15 books that teach kids about residential schools

Photo: Truth and Reconciliation commission of Canada

Residential schools for First Nations, Métis and Inuit kids were run by church organizations in partnership with the Canadian government from 1883 until 1969. Designed to force Indigenous children to assimilate into “Canadian” culture by taking away access to their culture, spirituality, parents and communities, attendance was mandatory and the intergenerational effects have been devastating.

Most of the remaining schools closed in the 1970s, but there was still a federally operated school running as late as 1996. It’s estimated that 150,000 kids were sent to these schools, and the legacy of neglect, lack of education (many of these institutions were glorified workhouses) and abuse — both physical and sexual —is still being felt today.

It’s a difficult part of Canada’s history to talk about, especially with kids, but reconciliation begins with understanding the past. Read on for some kid-friendly books about residential schools that can help.

Muinji’j Asks Why: The Story of the Mi’kmaq and the Shubenacadie Residential School

Written by Shanika MacEachern and Breighlynn MacEachern (Muinji’j), and illustrated by Zeta Paul, Nimbus Publishing (AGES 5+)

When seven-year-old Muinji’j comes home from school upset that her teacher’s lesson on residential schools doesn’t match what she already knows about the subject, her grandparents sit her down to tell the entire story of their history, purpose and effects.

Written by mother-and-daughter duo Shanika MacEachern and third-grader Breighlynn MacEachern (Muinji’j), Muinji’j Asks Why candidly situates the existence of residential schools within the wider context of history and the Canadian government’s campaign to eradicate Indigenous cultures, breaking down complex issues and making them accessible to a young audience.

15 books that teach kids about residential schools Photo: Nimbus Publishing

Phyllis’s Orange Shirt

Written by Phyllis Webstad and illustrated by Brock Nicol, Medicine Wheel Publishing (AGES 4-6)

Phyllis Webstad retells the true story about her orange shirt and her experience at residential school for a younger audience. It’s the story that inspired a movement and a national day of remembrance, making this picture book a good introduction to Orange Shirt Day for children who may be just starting to learn about it at school.

15 books that teach kids about residential schools Photo: Medicine Wheel Publishing


Stolen Words

Written by Melanie Florence and illustrated by Gabrielle Grimard, Second Story Press (AGES 4-8)

When a young girl asks a seemingly simple question — how to say grandfather in Cree — her grandfather tells her about his experience at a residential school and having his language taken away from him. Tackling the topic of the intergenerational impact of residential schools for a young audience, Stolen Words is a sensitive, warm story of a young girl helping her grandfather find his Cree language again.

There is also a dual-language English–Plains Cree version of the book available.

15 books that teach kids about residential schools Photo: Second Story Press

The Train

Written by Jodie Callaghan and illustrated by Georgia Lesley,  Second Story Press (AGES 4-8)

Another story of a young girl as she learns the history of residential schools from an older relative—this time a great uncle. In The Train, Ashley finds her great uncle sitting sadly by the old train tracks near their community in Nova Scotia, which leads to a conversation about how children were taken away on trains and how their lives were changed forever.

15 books that teach kids about residential schools Photo: Second Story Press

When We Were Alone

Written by David Alexander Robertson and illustrated by Julie Flett, Portage & Main Press (AGES 4–8)

One of the few books that teach younger kids about residential schools, When We Were Alone is set years after a little girl’s grandmother was sent to residential school. As they work together in a garden, the granddaughter asks her grandmother questions about her colourful clothes and long braided hair.

The answers reveal what life was like for her at the school, and the whole tale is strikingly illustrated by Cree-Métis author and illustrator Julie Flett.

15 books that teach kids about residential schools Photo: Portage & Main Press


Secret Path

Written by Gord Downie and illustrated by Jeff Lemire, Simon & Schuster (AGES 10+)

This graphic novel, which was released in conjunction with an album of songs Downie wrote, tells the true tale of Chanie Wenjack, who lived at the Cecilia Jeffrey Residential School in northern Ontario. When he was 12 years old, Wenjack ran away from the facility in hopes of walking back to his family, who lived 600 kilometres away in Ogoki Post. Sadly, Wenjack died on his journey from hunger and exposure on October 22, 1966.

There’s also a companion animated film, adapted from the book, which parents can watch with kids.

15 books that teach kids about residential schools Photo: Simon & Schuster

Speaking Our Truth: A Journey of Reconciliation

Written by Monique Gray Smith, Orca Book Publishers (AGES 9–13)

Acclaimed Cree, Lakota and Scottish author Monique Gray Smith has written a book that tells the story of survivors of residential schools and Canada’s treatment of Indigenous peoples, and also talks about practical ways allies can take the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and use them to work toward reconciliation.

15 books that teach kids about residential schools Orca Book Publishers


Written by Nicola I. Campbell and illustrated by Kim LaFave, Groundwood Books (Ages 4-7)

This award-winning picture book is a gorgeous tribute to all of the beauty and comfort of home, as told by Shi-shi-etko, a little girl who is headed to residential school for the first time. Before she leaves, she takes in all of her family’s teachings so that they can keep her safe when she’s away.

It’s a story that helps kids learn about all that Indigenous kids had to give up when they went to these schools.

15 books that teach kids about residential schools Photo: Groundwood Books


Shin-chi’s Canoe

Written by Nicola I. Campbell and illustrated by Kim Lafave, Groundwood Books (AGES 4–7)

Shin-chi’s Canoe won the 2009 TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award for its portrayal of life at residential school, as seen through the eyes of a new student, six-year-old Shin-chi, and his older sister, Shi-shi-etko, who is in her second year there. It’s the follow-up to Shi-shi-etko, and like its companion book, also teaches readers all about the rich life Indigenous kids were forced to leave behind.

illustration of a little boy plays with boat by a river Photo: Groundwood Books

No Time to Say Goodbye: Children’s Stories of Kuper Island Residential School

Written by Sylvia Olsen with Rita Morris and Ann Sam, and illustrated by Julia Bell and Connie Paul, Sono Nis Press (AGES 8+)

When government agents take five kids from the Tsartlip First Nation, a Coast Salish community in British Columbia, to the isolated Kuper Island Residential School, life as they know it changes forever. A fictionalized tale set in the 1950s, written in consultation with survivors of this school, No Time to Say Goodbye engages readers as they experience this new world through the eyes of these children.

15 books that teach kids about residential schools Sono Nis Press

As Long as the Rivers Flow

Written by Larry Loyie and Constance Brissenden, and illustrated by Heather Holmlund, Groundwood Books (AGES 6–8)

Larry Loyie was 10 years old when he was forced to leave behind his traditional Cree community to attend St. Bernard’s Mission residential school in Grouard, Alta. As Long as the Rivers Flow takes place in the summer before he went away. Holmlund’s gorgeous watercolour illustrations enhance this chapter book.

15 books that teach kids about residential schools Photo: Groundwood Books


A Stranger at Home

Written by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, illustrated by Liz Amini-Holmes, Annick Press (AGES 9–12)

After two years at residential school, Margaret is going home to the high Arctic. But once there, she realizes she’s now an outsider because she no longer speaks her language (doing so at school is forbidden), and no longer enjoys the food her mother makes for her.

This true story gives readers a sense of the cultural genocide that those who ran these schools perpetrated, and of its effects on the residents.

15 books that teach kids about residential schools Photo: Annick Press

Fatty Legs

Written by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, and illustrated by Liz Amini-Holmes, Annick Press (AGES 9-12) 

As a young child, Margaret Pokiak-Fenton lived in the high Arctic, and wanted to go away to school so she could learn to read the books her older sister brought from school. Despite his worries about how she would be treated, her father granted her wish. But once there, Margaret fell on the bad side of one of the nuns, whom she calls the Raven.

This is the true story, written with Margaret’s daughter-in-law Christy, of the harsh awakening she received at the residential school, and how she stood up to the Raven. It’s accompanied by archival photographs provided by Margaret, and illustrations.

15 books that teach kids about residential schools Photo: Annick Press

When I Was Eight

Written by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, and illustrated by Gabrielle Grimard, Annick Press (AGES 6–9)

Margaret’s experience at residential school, including being locked in a basement and frequently humiliated by one of the nuns, and her life at home in the high Arctic before she went away, is also told in this picture-book version, which was created for younger readers.

15 books that teach kids about residential schools Photo: Annick Press


I Am Not a Number

Written by Jenny Kay Dupuis and Kathy Kacer, and Illustrated by Gillian Newland, Second Story Press (AGES 7–11)

I Am Not a Number is the story of Dupuis’ then eight-year-old grandmother Irene, who is Ojibway. She was taken from her family to a residential school where she was made to use a number instead of her name, cut her hair and faced other abuses. Irene goes home on summer holiday, and her parents choose to keep her there, rather than send her back to the school. But there may be consequences for breaking the law…

Cover art for the book, I Am Not a Number Photo: Second Story Press
This article was originally published on Sep 27, 2022

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Alex is a Toronto-based writer and editor. She currently works as a managing editor for Mind Over Matter magazine. Her work can also be found in publications like The Globe and Mail, Chatelaine, and The Walrus.