Walker Books have kindly shared a recent interview with author Helen Cooper about her book, Saving the Butterfly. Helen offers some gentle insights and tips for reading this book with children.
Saving the Butterfly doesn’t shy away from themes of sadness and anxiety, so ideally it would be shared with children at a time when there is room for some quiet reflection. It’s a symbolic story about trauma and a wish for recovery. But on a simpler level, it’s about the universal need for home and safety and kindness: a gentle story of how two children help each other through a crisis.
When I’m about to share a book for the first time I don’t open it immediately. I think of the book cover almost as a window that can give a sneak peep into the world of the book and the characters’ minds and feelings. I’ll often ask children what they think the cover tells us about the story. And I tell them a little about the characters before I open the book. That bit of explanation beforehand can mean that the first reading will flow with fewer interruptions. For instance, before reading Saving the Butterfly I might tell children that this is a book about two children who have lost everything; and that after people have survived a tragedy, sometimes, they have sad thoughts and feelings that are very hard to bear.
The story in a picture book is rarely only in the words so a reading works best with a bit of room to mention the illustrations too. The first page of this story is not where the text begins; it’s on the title page with Gill Smith’s atmospheric painting of a stormy sea. My text is sparse so most of the detail appears only in Gill’s illustrations: indeed, the most emotional double-spread in the book has no words at all.
When the story ends the children might like to discuss the illustrations and what else they tell us about how the characters are feeling. For instance, both the children are very brave in this story but in different ways. Children are much more visually sophisticated than we tend to expect. So while we’re looking at the words, they’re seeing the story in the pictures. I’m always surprised when I ask then to tell me what they see. How far the book can be used as a springboard for gentle discussions about mental health or the real refugee experience, is going to be dependent on a lot of factors, including the age of the children. But after reading the book they might like to draw or paint their own beautiful butterfly to symbolise our hopes and wishes for everyone in similar circumstances.
You chose not to name the main characters of the story and instead refer to them as ‘little one’ and ‘bigger one’. What was your reasoning behind this? What effect do you think it has on the story?
Picture books are made to be read out loud. So, although I rarely write in straight rhyme, I always aim for a rhythm and musicality in the sound of the words. Put simply, I like the gentle burble of the phrase: ‘little one and bigger one’. But it’s also a device that I use in several of my books when I want them to feel universal. For instance, in The Baby Who Wouldn’t Go to Bed the characters are ‘the Baby’ and ‘the Mother’ because they represent every child setting out to escape bedtime and every mother trying to lull them to slumber. In Saving the Butterfly my children are not based on any real person and their plight is not set in any particular time or place. I wanted the story to represent all children who have escaped from trauma, not just now, but in the past and those who will flee to safety in the future too. I hoped to suggest symbolically that these two children, a little one, and a bigger one, could have been any one of us, were it not for the grace of circumstance.
Gill Smith’s illustrations are very warm and powerful. Which illustration is your favourite and why?
I’m so thrilled with Gill’s illustrations that it’s hard to choose a favourite. I love the title page: that elemental sweep of the stormy sea and the vulnerable boat under a clouded moon is a powerful expression of the opening of the story. But my favourite of all has to be the picture where the butterfly lands on the girl’s hand. The simply indicated face and tousled hair fills the whole page. The only other detail is the butterfly and the roughest indication of a hand. With absolute simplicity and compassion Gill has captured that moment of the child searching for calm deep inside herself, controlling the fluttering inside by breathing deep and thinking of the colours of the butterfly, so that she can find the strength to lead it out into the world.
What’s next for you as a writer?
I’m currently finishing up my second Middle-Grade novel which I have illustrated extensively in black and white. I loved working in black and white for The Hippo at the end of the Hall which was my first for that age group and I enjoyed the sweep of a longer story, so I decided to write another. It’s to be published next year as I wanted plenty of time to work on the illustrations. I’m superstitious about saying much about books until nearer the publication date and I never post roughs or pictures until they have been proofed…which unfortunately… makes my Instagram posts look as if I am not doing anything much. But as the FCBG are old friends of mine I will murmur in a low voice that my next book is a kind of fairy-tale, and that there are two cats, several foxes, a magpie, and a dragon. As always, I do have a couple of other projects too, but they are wrapped in even deeper, misty, superstitious secrecy. They are at the stage where if someone else breathes on them they may disappear in puff of smoke so I can’t whisper a word about them to anyone.
You can find out more about Helen Cooper on her website www.helencooperbooks.co.uk