A picture book about the Holocaust? A tricky undertaking, to say the least. Not surprisingly, Patricia Polacco pulls it off. The beloved author and illustrator adds The Butterfly to a long list of extraordinary books for children, such as Pink and Say, Thundercake, Mrs. Katz and Tush, and The Keeping Quilt.
The Butterfly tells the true story of an incident in the life of Polacco's aunt, Monique Solliliage, who was a child in German-occupied France.
Unbeknownst to little Monique, her mother was active in the French resistance, and routinely hid entire families in the cellar until safe transport could be arranged.
One night, Monique wakes to find a ghost sitting on her bed. The ghost turns out to be one of the children Madame Solliliage is hiding: a little girl named Sevrine. Sevrine is so desperate for companionship and play that she risks the lives of the whole household by venturing upstairs. The girls become secret friends, playing together every night, until they are spotted by a neighbor. They confess to Monique's mother, who quickly arranges passage to a safer place.
Adults reading to very young children might consider paraphrasing the action and keeping some of the dialogue to make the story shorter and more concise. The evocation of fear, dread, and actual violence may otherwise be too intense. For older children who are asking questions about the Holocaust or studying it in elementary school, it is an excellent read-aloud book as is.
The book's size is a bit deceptive: it looks like an ordinary picture book, so older children may be prejudiced against what appears to be a book for "little kids." Were it the same size as a "chapter book," it could avoid a case of mistaken identity. In its present form, however, Polacco's artwork remains big enough to deliver its powerful message. Besides, adults familiar with Polacco's other works know her books are always much more than "just" picture books.
The Butterfly, named after a creature of hope and freedom, does end on a hopeful, albeit suspenseful, note. The real story continues years after the book's last page: Monique and Sevrine remain friends to this day.
Joanna Brichetto lives in Nashville.