Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Faithful Elephants

I subbed the other day for a special education teacher, which means I was in a classroom, but not specifically doing instruction - sometimes, you are just "supporting" one or more students. Anyhow, I was in the classroom for the social studies portion of the day, which was also the end of the day. I had spoken to the teacher about a book she might be interested in (these were 5th graders, and they are reading a fiction book about WWII/the Holocaust) called The Big Lie Big Lie: A True Story. She showed me a couple of picture book titles, one of which she wanted to read to the class before the end of the day.

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.

12 comments:

Norm said...

So this is how we educate now-a-days...sad. I'm certain the childern who noted the inhumaneness of the ordeal were more intellectually gifted than the morons who allowed this book into our schools.
(Excuse the moronic adjective, but it's fitting!)
There are certainly other ways to educate children about war and its consequences but I don't believe this is one of them.

Miss Ladybug said...

Norm~

It's not so much that this book was "allowed" in the school. I can't say that it was too mature for the 5th grade audience - kids that age are already developing their own thoughts and opinions on important subject. My problem was that it was offered with no counterpoint, and with no real opportunity to discuss the book. It could work if it was paired with a book presenting an alternative opinion, with the goal of having the students learn critical thinking skills. At that age, we don't do any favors to our children if we don't expose them to various ideas and teach them to weigh the pros and cons of each. This book is non-fiction. It is a fact of history, and nothing we can do will change that, nor should we wish to. It's just that the author comes away with a specific message in relating the facts. I just want people to be aware of this book and its message. It can be a valuable learning tool used with the right audience (older students) and in the right context. I just didn't like the "OK, here's a story about WWII.", followed by "the author's purpose is to make people be against war" and a short comment to the affect of "other people have 'pro-war' views, and they can write a book, too, if they want to"...

Lyric Mezzo said...

Wasn't there a book about how Patton saved the Lippisaner (sp?) stallions in Vienna?

Miss L - I think you've found a good challenge for yourself! Writing a children's book that shows some of the positives - how there are some things worse than war.

And "The Big Lie"? Was that book suggesting that the Holocaust never happened?

Miss Ladybug said...

Lyric Mezzo~

The book I mentioned to the teacher was written by a Hungarian survivor of Auschwitz, Isabella Leitner. IIRC, she was the first survivor to arrive in the US after the war. I haven't read (or purchased) this yet. I got the exact title wrong originally - I've corrected that...

As for a book about Patton saving the Lipizzan stallions during WWII, I see they've made movies about it, but the only book I find is a out-of-print autobiography from Alois Podhassky, the director of the Spanish Riding School of Vienna during the war called My Dancing White Horses. Maybe I should write a book? Not only does this show the good our military can do, it is exactly opposite to the cruel killing of the elephants at the Tokyo zoo...

Time to get the kids from the cafeteria...

Anonymous said...

I heard of this book while on amazon.com, and I am shocked that anyone would consider it a good choice for kids. It really offends me that the wrongheaded decision to starve the elephant and their fate is seen a metaphor for war's cruelty, a statement of some kind, when it is just a reflection of the stupidity of the decision maker. What a sad fate for the elephants. Furthermore, in the middle of a war, i don't think the elephants were going to do anything close to the damage the war was doing. Even if they were sure killing them was right, what a way! They should have been shot, or simply NOT KILLED. I 'd rather have an elephant running down the street than bombs any day.

Anonymous said...

I may sound horrible but I think it is an amazing book to read and a great way to educate kids. I just read it and it broke my heart and I think that that is a great thing. If something has no impact on you then why would you ever notice the importance? As for not many books being written on World War II I know of several, a few of which are Passage to Freedom by Ken Mochizuki, There Come a Soldier by Peggy Mercer (which is one of my personal favorites), Willy and Max, I cant remember if it is about a specific war but The Cello of Mr. O by Jane Cutler, Don't You Know There's a War On? by James Stevenson, Pennies in a Jar by Dori Chaconas and there are tons more. I work in the children's department and am also working on a research paper for my class about war in children's picture books, hence why I know these.

Miss Ladybug said...

I never said to ban the book. I just don't like how it was presented. It is a factual book, but it should only be presented to students when there is ample opportunity to discuss opposing views on the subject, and if there is some other book offering another perspective. I am unfamiliar with any of the titles you list. Unfortunately, I am no longer subbing and have been unsuccessful in my attempt to get a teaching job, so I have stopped shopping children's picture books I may never get to put to use in a classroom.

Anonymous said...

I am an animal lover and not anti-war. I thought it was an appropriate book to share with my 4th graders. They really liked it. I cried when I read it. It was a horrible thing that happened, but I thought it was important for them to know. We also wondered why they didn't just shoot the animals. We also read The Butterfly by Patricia Polaaco about the Holocaust, but later on in the year.

Anonymous said...

This book was read to me when I was very young--maybe 8. I spent many nights in bed crying over the story. Last night in therapy, I cried about it, I'm now 30. My therapist was horrified. This really is a book for older children. It's a story that needs to be shared, but not until the children are old enough to understand its message and should certainly be given space to talk to teachers about it--not shuffled off to recess immediately afterward!

Miss Ladybug said...

I had no idea this book had been around that long. A little research at Barnes & Noble online shows a library binding hardcover was published back in 1988... I didn't learn about this book until twenty years later...

Anonymous said...

I know that this post was written a long time ago but I'm hoping that maybe someone will see it. Our history teacher read this book to us the other day in class (15-16 year olds). I agree that this is not a book for younger children as it made some of the most mature kids in the class to tear up. I am 16 years old and was a bit disturbed at the harshness of the story. However, I can understand what the author was trying to convey to the reader. Multiple students in the class asked why they hadn't just shot the elephants as a more "humane" way to kill the elephants. It occurred to me that the zoo keepers were hoping the war would end. By starving them, it gave them a chance to save the elephants if the war had ended. If they had shot them, there would be no way to save them but if the war had ended, they could have nursed the elephants back to health.

Anonymous said...

Better late than never. This book is actually fiction. It is written in a non-fiction manner. It is well documented that it is thus. It's main purpose is anti-war themes mentioned, but it did not happen. It is at best, historical fiction for younger readers.