Name of Book: The Butterfly
Author: Patricia Polacco
Illustrator: Patricia Polacco
Publisher: Philomel Books
Audience: Grades 1-5 (although in places the subject matter may be too harsh for the lower end of this age range)
Summary: Late one moonlit evening in World War II-eraParis, Monique finds a little ghost girl perched on the end of her bed, petting her cat. This apparition turns out to be Sevrine, a Jewish girl whose family is being hidden by Monique’s mother in their cellar. The two little girls visit one another at night as often as they can without waking their parents, playing dress-up and having late-night tea parties. These scenes of childish play stand in stark contrast to the terrible things that the “tall boots,” the Nazi soldiers, are doing in the town. One night, Monique’s next-door-neighbor spots the two girls as they stand at a window to release a butterfly, and, terrified, they run to awaken Monique’s mother. She quickly arranges to send Sevrine’s parents off to the next safe house, and she and Monique themselves take Sevrine to a rendezvous point and send her off to what they hope will be asylum. Although they hear no word about Sevrine’s whereabouts, several weeks later as they are working in their garden, Monique and her mother are surrounded by several dozen Monarch butterflies. “It’s a sign, Maman…!” Monique cries, sure that Sevrine is letting them know that she is safe.
Literary elements at work in the story: In this work of historical fiction, the setting of Nazi-occupiedParis is of primary importance. All of the action of the plot is set in motion by this time and this locale. Although the story is told in the third person, the point of view is definitely that of a child’s. The joys of friendship and of the natural world are at a child’s eye level, and the terrors described here are exacerbated by the fact that Monique has no idea why her world has been turned upside down. Polacco emphasizes the contrast between childlike innocence and the evil of Nazism with her art. Scenes with Monique in her house or with Sevrine are depicted in bright colors and bold shapes, while incidents with Nazi soldiers are painted in dull colors. Polacco’s trademark wide-open hands appear throughout the book, indicating her characters’ willingness both to give and receive without reservation. At the very center of the story, we see a bright painting of Monique with her hands wide open in her flower garden as she reacts to the grey fist of the Nazi soldier crushing a butterfly in front of her.
How does the perspective on gender/race/culture/economics/ability make a difference to the story? No mention is ever made of Monique’s father (although one could surmise that he is off fighting in the war), so this is a story about a very courageous mother who is part of the French Resistance inParis. Monique is uncomprehending when she encounters racial hatred. She and a school friend witness the vicious beating of a beloved shopkeeper in town, and when her mother tries to explain that the Nazis hate Jews like their friend, Monique’s classmate responds, “But Monsieur Marks is a Frenchman!” Monique’s innocence makes clear that her mother has sheltered her from a world turned upside down by racial prejudice and that, conversely, hatred is something that has been learned by others.
Theological conversation partners: Monique’s mother’s work in the Resistance echoes the ancient Hebraic social command: “You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in theland ofEgypt.” (Ex 23:9) God’s people know what it means to be strangers, and they are drawn to take care of others who are strangers, too. Further, Jesus showed us a way of life that demands sacrifice on others’ behalf. “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers [and sisters].” (1 John 3:16) The butterfly, though it seems to be a bit of a clunky device in this story, has long been a symbol for freedom and resurrection. At the end of the story, when the butterflies appear in Monique’s garden, they also recall Jesus’ consoling words to his disciples, “…if I go, I will send a comforter to you.” (John 16:7) Potent role models (particularly women role models) of courage in the face of injustice are greatly needed in the church today. Polacco’s book would be a powerful tool in discussions with older elementary students about what it means to live the Christian life in a world that is often in opposition to it. This would also be a particularly good book to share with a congregation that was considering refugee resettlement work.
Faith Talk Questions:
- Why do you think that Monique’s mother was hiding Sevrine’s family in her cellar?
- Why do you think that Monique’s mother hadn’t told Monique about Sevrine and her family?
- How would you have felt if you were Sevrine, hiding in a cellar for a long time? What about when she was being moved from Monique’s house?
- Polacco doesn’t mention Monique’s family’s religious beliefs directly in the story. What clues do you get about how they felt about God?
- Who are some people who might need help in our world today?
- What sorts of things could you do to help them? What about your family? The church?
This review was written by Union Presbyterian Seminary student Beth Lyon-Suhring.
The Butterfly by Storypath is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.