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Created: 21st June, 2022

What inspired you to write a children’s book about the refugee experience?

When Denise Johnstone-Burt at Walker Books asked if I could write a picture book text for another illustrator, I knew here was an opportunity to write a story that might work best with a looser and more suggestive style of illustration than my own. Many of my other books take a gentle look at childhood anxieties: the fear of losing someone, or being lost, or even the fear of a bear living under the stairs. I was an anxious child, so I try to tread lightly, with humour to counter the theme. This time though, I aimed for a different tone. I set out to find a gentle and symbolic way of writing a story about the anxiety that can follow any major trauma.

Early on a brother and a sister came to mind: a resilient, chirpy younger boy and his older sister who copes admirably for both of them in a crisis but afterwards suffers from anxiety and her memories of the past. I wanted to explore my two characters’ different responses to the same situation. This is the heart of the story. The lyrical phrases that I search for when I write a picture book only surfaced when I thought of using a butterfly as a metaphor for the girl’s courage: I knew a butterfly could be a strong symbol for fragility and the spirit of survival. Then came the imagery of the dark sea to represent trauma and loss, and the rhythm of the words flowed.

I hadn’t set out to write a book about the refugee experience, but as the story unfolded the children evolved into refugees who had lost everything. There could be no easy resolution for them.  And although the dark sea represents any sort of trauma – and all the dark seas that people have fled from in the past as well as now – I felt daunted. I worried about winding myself into some real person’s tragedy. For a while I put the story aside.

I am not a refugee, although my parents on both sides were the children of immigrants, Jewish on one side, Irish catholic on the other. Both families came over the sea with very little and found refuge in this country. I think about that often. So, in the end I returned to the story. And though the hope at the end of the book is fragile, I hope that with Gill Smith’s poignant illustrations it will become a book that children will want to share.


How do you hope teachers and librarians will engage with Saving the Butterfly?

Saving the Butterfly doesn’t shy away from themes of sadness and anxiety, so ideally it should 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 another level, it’s about the universal need for home and safety and kindness: a simple story of how two children help each other through a crisis.

I’m in awe of the way experienced teachers and librarians introduce books to children. I don’t have their experience or skills so here are just a few suggestions, some ideas that I’ve used over the years, and others for this book in particular. 

When I’m presenting a picture book to a class, I generally hold up the cover and tell the children a little about the characters before I open the book. I think of the book cover almost as a window that can give the children a sneak peep into the world of the book and the characters’ minds and feelings. That bit of explanation beforehand can mean that the first reading can flow with fewer interruptions. For instance, before reading Saving the Butterfly I might tell the children that this is a book about two children who have lost everything; and that after people have survived a tragedy, sometimes, they have 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. For example, the first page of this story is not where the text begins but on the title page with Gill Smith’s atmospheric painting of a stormy sea. My text is sparse so most of the details appear only in Gill’s illustrations: indeed, the most emotional double-spread in the book has no words at all. 

Afterwards the children might like to discuss the illustrations and what else they tell us about how the characters are feeling. 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 many things, including the age of the children.

A lovely way to end the session for all ages might be to ask all the children to draw or paint their own beautiful butterfly to symbolize our hopes and wishes for everyone in similar circumstances.


Gill Smith’s illustrations are beautiful. How did you feel the first time you saw them? Did they match your own vision or surprise you?

This is the first book I have written but not illustrated. I’m most comfortable when writing in picture book form so my stories tend to be shaped and paced around natural page turns. But apart from that structure I only allowed myself the haziest ideas about the artwork. I saw a darkness – almost like the edges of a photocopy – for the sea and shadows, with a rainbow brightness for the butterfly. To imagine more might have spoiled my reaction to what an illustrator could bring to the story and I was really keen not to get in their way.

Louise Jackson, the Art Director, sent Gill Smith’s first black and white roughs during the first Covid lockdown. I was thrilled. They were stunning: simple yet strong; sensitive, and well composed with gorgeous figure-work. I had only one worry. Would she be able to carry that emotional intensity through to final full-colour art? But the final artwork was even better than I had hoped. The illustrations are gorgeous: spacious and powerful, gentle and compassionate all at once. Gill’s figures are her forte, especially those so simply indicated faces full of emotion. Collaborating with Gill on this book has been a joy. 


What message are you hoping to pass on to kids and adults who read Saving the Butterfly?

I don’t know that I was trying to pass on a message. I’m not sure picture books should be about insights from the author as much as encouraging insights from readers. But I am hoping to create empathy: I want children to think about the characters after they have shared the book and, hopefully, talk about them.

The primary story strand is about a brave young girl made prisoner by her own traumatic memories and anxiety; and her courage in taking the first steps towards recovery despite a very uncertain future. But some children will empathize more with the small boy who knows his sister is in deep distress and tries to find a way to help her feel better. And yet others will prefer to see the larger real-life story that I almost accidentally conjured up when I wrote about them. Gill Smith has woven all three stories together, dancing between light and dark in her delicate, compassionate, illustrations. Saving the Butterfly can only be a metaphor for the harsh and overwhelming reality facing so many people, but I’d be so overjoyed and humbled if our book helped readers hold refugee children in their thoughts longer than they would have if they hadn’t read it.


Discover Saving the Butterfly by Helen Cooper and Gill Smith, published by Walker Books...