Saving the Butterfly by Helen Cooper and illustrated by Gill Smith sensitively explores, through the eyes of two children, the different responses and emotions refugee children may experience as well as the trauma and barriers they endure when seeking safety in their new homeland.

In this picture book a brother and sister are the only survivors on a boat of refugees. The older sister doubted they would survive. From the moment they are rescued they have different reactions and emotions to their lived experiences. The older sister immediately takes on an adult role and all of the responsibilities that come with this. This in effect shields her younger brother from their grim reality. The younger brother considers them to be fortunate, the older sister doesn’t see their story with this optimism. Her mind is flooded with and haunted by the memories. Her younger brother not burdened by memories of their home and loss, makes friends in this new homeland and enjoys good mental health, while his sister becomes more and more withdrawn, rarely leaving their broken home.

The younger brother feels helpless and powerless to support his big sister. As the older sister becomes house bound the younger brother comes up with the idea to bring part of the outside inside to her. He captures a butterfly. The butterfly seems in tune with the older sister’s pain and settles ever so gently on her hand. She is able to focus on the glorious colours and beauty of the butterfly, a time of beauty, light and a glimmer of hope in her otherwise dark and heavy days. Could this trapped butterfly, fragile and needing to be set free, mark the beginning of her healing?  

The illustrations deftly reflect the children’s gamut of emotions and contrasting moods between the siblings. With a grey and dark colour palette surrounding the girl and bright primary colours accompanying the boy. As the butterfly brings light into the girl’s day bold colours are introduced to the pages. There is so much to “read” in the illustrations with the body language and facial expressions adding to the lyrical text.

I recently read that refugees face three stages of trauma, first in their country of origin where they live through unimaginable horrors, loss, lack of normality, displacement and disrupted education. The second stage relates to the perilous and often life-threatening journey when fleeing their country. This journey can take months. The third stage occurs in the country of refuge and involves all of the barriers to overcome when in a new country, learning a new language and facing racism have been cited as just two of these traumatic challenges (Fazel M, Stein A. (2002) The mental health of refugee children. Archives of Disease in Childhood. 87:366-370).

This story focuses on life for refugees once they are in their new homeland and the trauma, barriers and adjustments which exist for them and manifests in different ways. This story could inspire discussions about why the children are alone and without parents, carers or adults and what circumstances could have led to them leaving their home. It also serves to explore ways in which refugees can be welcomed, included and supported in their new homes and community.

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