Reviews /

Saving the Butterfly

Authored by Helen Cooper
Illustrated by Gill Smith
Published by Walker Books

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Saving the Butterfly tells the story of two children who, after making a perilous journey in a small boat, arrive at a place of safety. They are welcomed and given a temporary home.

The children are called ‘the bigger one’ and ‘the little one.’. Note the choice ‘bigger’ rather than ‘big. This tells us that she is also young, too young to feel the weight of responsibility that has been thrust upon her. The place they have come from is not named either but is called simply ‘before’. This thoughtful word choice and lack of specificity is powerful and elevates the story. Details of the trauma these unaccompanied children have been through are not necessary. They represent thousands of children who have been forced to leave their homes through no fault of their own. Instead, the nonspecific terms allow space for readers to fill with their thoughts, reflections and experiences.

The focus of the story is on the different ways in which ‘the bigger one’ and ‘the little one’ cope with their circumstances. While ‘the little one’ lives in the moment, quickly adapts, and finds new friends. The bigger one cannot so readily forget what she has left behind.

‘She felt she shouldn’t forget.

Over her mind a shadow fell,

while a squeezing in her chest

made it sometimes hard to breathe.’

The lyrical text is complemented by Gill Smith’s emotive illustrations. A toy rabbit that the little one was clutching when he arrived on the boat is now held close by the girl, and she cloaks herself in her comfort blanket. She looks sadly at the children playing outside. A child’s picture of two people (possibly parents) with love hearts is taped to the wall. But glimpses of hope are even present. Sunny dandelions and a rainbow are recurring motifs reassuring us that brighter times may be ahead.

Potential for change arrives in the form of a butterfly, which like the girl, is trapped inside the ramshackle building. ‘It battered and smashed its pretty wings against the walls. Panicking’.

When eventually, the butterfly frees itself ‘into the shaft of sun and the arch of a sudden rainbow.’ the bigger one takes her first tentative steps towards her new life.

A gentle story that can be read with children in KS1 to talk about refugee experience and, more generally about the balance between taking time to heal and finding the courage to overcome difficulties. There are no easy answers and conversations, as the book is, should be honest but hopeful.

Another book with a similar theme is Erika Meza’s To The Other Side

Empathy Collection 2023

This collection is available from our bookselling partner Best Books for Schools