The book in question was Faithful Elephants: A True Story of Animals, People and War by Yukio Tsuchiya, translated by Tomoko Tsuchiya Dykes and illustrated by Ted Lewin ("recommended" for children aged 9 to 12). It is the story of the elephants at the zoo in Tokyo during World War II. You see, Japan is being bombed. The Japanese army worries about what would happen if the zoo were to be bombed and the large and dangerous animals were to escape from their cages. The order was given to kill all the animals that were deemed to be a danger if they were to get loose. First, they killed the lions and tigers. Eventually, it was time to kill the three elephants. They tried to feed them bad (or poisoned) potatoes along with their normal potatoes. However, the elephants would only eat the good ones. Then, they tried to inject them with poison, but the needles would break without penetrating the elephants' tough hide. It was decided that the only option left was to stop feeding the elephants and let them starve to death. First, one elephant was starved and died. Then, the remaining two were starved together. Their trainers couldn't bear to see them as they got thinner and weaker. The elephants would still do tricks in order to be rewarded with food. One day, one of the trainers relented. Against orders, he gave the elephants food and water. Everyone else pretended not to notice. But, that was the only time they were given food or water. The zookeepers kept hoping the war would end before the elephants died. However, that did not happen. The three elephants that lived in the Tokyo zoo during the Allied bombing of Japan are now buried at the zoo.
I could see where this story was going long before the end. I have no reason to doubt the basic truth behind the story: because of fears for the safety of the population should dangerous animals escape from the zoo, it was determined by the Japanese military the animals should be destroyed. The zookeepers reluctantly followed those orders, and animals died untimely deaths.
When she was finished reading the story, she talked about the "author's purpose" in writing the book, and read from the blurb on the book jacket. The author's intent was to show how war affects more than just the humans who fight them, and to encourage anti-war sentiment. She also mentioned that someone else would be perfectly able to write another book that is "pro-war". Oh, how I hate that term, as it is a grossly inaccurate descriptor for someone who is "anti-anti-war". I'll give her credit for voicing the fact that we have free speech, and that there is more than just the "anti-war" position. But, I was not comfortable at all with the fact that the only book she shared that afternoon was blantantly anti-war, and did not really explain the WHY of the bombing of Japan, or the goals of the Allied campaigns against both Japan and Germany at that point in history. The students may be reading Number the Stars by Lois Lowry (set in 1943 German-occupied Denmark), but they haven't actually studied World War II in social studies yet - they haven't quite finished with the Civil War... I don't know this teacher's political affiliation, but I think I can make a fairly good guess. However, I can only think that one of the other books she had, Mercedes and the Chocolate Pilot - a story of the Berlin Airlift [5/15/08: this story, more or less - I didn't realize it's been almost 60 years...] by Margot Theis Raven (who also wrote America's White Table), will maybe provide a balance to Faithful Elephants, even if it is delayed...
The one-sidedness of the presentation wasn't my only problem. I am a lover of animals - I have dogs and a cat, and have had others in the past - but I can completely understand the perspective of those who were charged with protecting the civilian population in Tokyo during the war. Destroying the animals was an understandable solution to a potentially deadly problem - moving the animals out of Tokyo had also been considered, but discarded as the potential problem wouldn't go away during transport, or to whatever destination they may have decided upon. What I have a problem with is the manner in which the elephants were killed. Starving any creature, human or not, is an incredibly cruel way to kill them. As one of the students in the class noted to me, they could have always shot the elephants, which would have been much more quick and painless than weeks without food or water. If one wanted to share this book with students, it should only be presented to older students, and be paired with a book that offers balance, depicting some positive things that have resulted from armed conflict. Unfortunately, I am unaware of specific picture book titles that would "fit" with this WWII-era story: war is not typically the subject of picture books.