Dr. Jenny Kay Dupuis's family and personal history led her to write I Am Not a Number (Second Story Press) with Kathy Kacer, a book which tackles the difficult and tragic history of residential schools in Canada. Based on the experiences of Dupuis' own grandmother, I am Not a Number is an important, intense story of one young girl's strength and spirit amidst oppression, fear, and homesickness. When her very name is taken away, Irene tries to find ways to hold onto her identity. When she goes home for the summer, her parents decide to break the law and keep Irene and her brothers from ever being sent away again, a risky move that which difficult consequences.
We're proud to speak with Jenny today about this important book, which allows young readers to learn about a dark period of Canada's history. She tells us about how I am Not a Number can be used to start essential conversations, tackling a full length creative writing project for the first time, and the importance of a name.
Tell us about the title of your newest book and how you came to it.
Jenny Kay Dupuis:
The title of my picture book, co-written with Kathy Kacer, is I Am Not a Number. It’s the story of my granny, who was taken from her First Nation’s family and community at a young age to live in a residential school in the late 1920’s. We worked together to brainstorm some ideas and ended up choosing a title suggested by Second Story Press. When I heard it, it felt right.
What, in your opinion, is most important function of a title?
As an educator, I feel that a children’s book title should spark a reader’s interest, invite them to make respectful predications and, at times, pull at their emotions. A book title like I Am Not a Number may be used by teachers, librarians, and families to begin important conversations with all children about voice, cultural identity, and the impacts of history.
What is your favourite title that you've ever come up with and why? (For any kind of piece, short or long.)
This is my first creative piece of literature. Before this, I spent most of my time on academic writing. I Am Not a Number really pushed me to start thinking about other ways that writers and artists (e.g., illustrators) can reach out to children to share community memories through picture books. For that reason, this is my personal favourite book title.
What about your favourite title as a reader, from someone else's work?
My favourite children’s book title is Jingle Dancer by Cynthia Leitich Smith. Although the title is simple, it holds a special meaning to Anishinaabe people when it comes to healing, dignity, and community.
Did you consider any other titles for your current book and if so what were they? Why did you decide to go with the title you eventually picked?
Initially, we put forward several book titles. We settled on I Am Not a Number because it reflected an important part of the history where thousands of residential school students' cultural identities were suppressed. One of the ways that their identity was taken was the students were called by numbers instead of their names. My granny’s number was 00759. The title seemed to fit the story as my granny was reminded (in the story) to not forget who she was.
What are you working on now?
I’ve been pretty busy these past few years. While working on this book, I also published a research study that focused on reconciliation through the arts with a childhood friend, Dr. Kristen Ferguson. Moving forward, I’m looking forward to continue my work in Indigenous education and use my free time to paint again.
Dr. Jenny Kay Dupuis is of Anishinaabe/Ojibway ancestry and a proud member of Nipissing First Nation. She is an educator, researcher, artist, and speaker who works full-time supporting the advancement of Indigenous education. Jenny’s interest in her family’s past and her commitment to teaching about Indigenous issues through literature drew her to co-write I am Not a Number, her first children’s book. She lives in Toronto.
Grace O'Connell is the Contributing Editor for Open Book: Toronto and the author of Magnified World (Random House Canada). She also writes a book column for This Magazine.
For more information about Magnified World please visit the Random House Canada website.