I never know what books my children will bring home from the school library, which one of them visits on Mondays and the other visits on Wednesdays. This week, one of them borrowed Patricia Polacco’s The Butterfly (2000), which she chose because of its beautiful cover art. It’s always about the cover art, especially for kids.
Too close to bedtime on Wednesday night, my daughter asked me to read it to her. I can’t resist an invitation to read books with her, and she knows it. It’s her go-to delay tactic when it’s time for bed.
I opened the book and noticed that it contained the author’s autograph (just like the book her twin brought home this week). The author added the following message: “Go tell your story.”
Had I read the summary on the inside flap before we had started reading, I would have known that this story is Polacco’s family’s story. I also would have known that it focuses on a very dark time in our relatively recent past: the Holocaust. It takes place in German-occupied France. Somehow, I missed the partial swastikas on the front and the back of the cover, and I skipped over the title page and the inscription page, both of which I later learned contain swastikas in the illustrations. It was getting late, I still had work to do, and so I didn’t pay as much attention as I should have paid to my daughter’s choice of reading material that night.
I realized that Polacco’s The Butterfly was not the light-hearted children’s book I thought it was only after I’d started reading the story aloud:
The Moon was so radiant, it seemed almost festive. As Monique gazed up at it, she thought that the moon must not know that her village was occupied by Nazi troops. All of France was, for that matter. There was a terrible war raging in what, to Monique, seemed like most of the world.
Skipping over “Nazi,” a word my daughter probably hadn’t heard before, she asked me: “What is war?”
Oh, she is so innocent, and considering the pacifist beliefs of our household, I’d rather she learn about that subject from me. I replied, “It’s when two or more countries fight with each other.”
“Why would they fight? Fighting is bad.”
“Yes, it is,” I said, knowing fully well that World War II and the Holocaust were a different matter. I felt unequipped to expose the nuances of a rule we had taught them: No fighting.
Then came more questions: “Who are the Nazis? Why are they taking Mr. Marks away? What are they going to do to Mr. Marks?”
For a brief moment, I felt like that parent I discussed in my post earlier this week, the woman on a mission to remove Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere from a public school district’s 10th grade curriculum. I thought, “I wish S. hadn’t borrowed this book from the library! I’m not ready for this conversation!”
But, of course, I came to my senses. The book is better for slightly older children,* but my daughter wanted to finish what we had started.** Not knowing how she would cope with these themes (and I can only imagine how difficult it must be for children whose relatives actually experienced these atrocities), I resolved to provide as many age-appropriate answers as I could to whatever questions my daughter threw my way. I wanted to reassure her that, even though this story is based on real events, people would never do anything like it again (it wasn’t the time to talk about contemporary human rights violations).
As we continued to read the story–which is so touching that I struggled to blink away my tears as I read the words aloud–we found that the text addressed some of my daughter’s questions. For example, Polacco explains that the Nazis took Monsieur Marks away because he is Jewish. Monique’s mother explains, “The Nazis hate people like Monsieur Marks, ma cherie. It is so pointless and cruel…” S. didn’t fully accept this explanation and followed it up with: “But why did the Nazis hate the Jews?”
How do you explain hate to a small child? I have no difficulty discussing human anatomy and basic sexual reproduction with my children, even at their young age, but pointless and cruel hatred is a much harder subject to discuss — and frankly one I do not understand myself.
*Amazon lists this book as ideal for ages 6-8, but Publishers Weekly says ages 4-8. I’d say it’s better for the later end of that age range.
**Thankfully, the story has a mostly happy ending and the author treats this subject very carefully. Still, I don’t recommend it as bedtime reading. My daughter doesn’t have a history of nightmares (that I know of), but reading it at night probably wasn’t the best parenting choice.