Thursday, November 10, 2011


By Nikolai Popov

(North-South Books, 1995)

A frog sits on a rock, contentedly sniffing a flower he has picked as several uncut blooms surround him. Suddenly the tip of an umbrella pops up from underneath one of the plants. The umbrella belongs to a mouse. Frog and mouse stare at one another. Mouse lunges toward frog and grabs the flower. “MINE!”

Two other frogs leap onto the page, in hot pursuit of mouse. As mouse flees with the prized flower, he abandons his umbrella. The frogs claim the umbrella as theirs and dance about, collecting the remaining flowers.

Several mice reappear in an old boot on wheels. A canon-like weapon protrudes from the boot and fires at the frogs.

Frogs return in larger numbers to retaliate. More mice respond in more artillery-equipped boots. Each action leads to a stronger reaction.

Nikolai Popov’s picture book helps answer the “Why?” of war. This is a wordless book, a symbolic consideration as fighting begins when words have no effect. Children have to “read” the pictures to figure out the story. This is an excellent book for getting kids to make connections to their own sibling conflicts and playground battles. (Is the swing that important? Why must you have it right now?) But, of course, Why? is more obviously a teaching tool as children hear of world wars and civil wars that have killed millions and maimed even more. By the end of the book, the illustrations are bleak, the landscape singed, the prized flower and umbrella more suited for a landfill.

As I “read” this book to a grade six class recently, holding up each page, stopping at a few points to let them talk in groups, I heard one girl say, “I like this book. I have to do all the thinking!” She and her classmates were fully engaged.

In the Author’s Note, Popov recalls his own experiences as a child in a Russian town during World War II. He is clear about the purpose of Why? “I have created this book because it seems to me that if children can understand the senselessness of war, if they can see how easily one can be sucked into a cycle of violence, they may become a force for peace in the future.”

Why? is a prime example of how picture books can introduce children to complex subject matter. As we remember those who have been killed, wounded and harmed by war, it serves as the impetus for hope. This is a book that should be widely read...and gifted to world leaders.

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