How One Book Made a Difference
by Nancy Carlsson-Paige
First published in Cambridge Voices, in press

In 1986, Cambridge officially became a sister city to a village in El Salvador called San Jose Las Flores.   The bloody civil war in El Salvador, largely funded by the U.S. government, had already ravaged that country for six long years.  Much of the rural population, besieged by government military attacks, had been forced to abandon their homes.  From 1983 on, cities all over the United States began forming sister relationships with Salvadoran rural communities to bring international visibility to the atrocities occurring there and support Salvadoran refugees returning to their homes and beginning to rebuild even as the war continued.

When I decided to join a delegation to San Jose Las Flores in 1990, eleven other delegations from Cambridge had already visited the village, although ours would be the first one made up entirely of educators.  We went with the goal of supporting the repopulation movement, as had the delegates before us.  But we also wanted to live and work with teachers and children in the village for our 10-day stay—to exchange ideas and build relationships based on our common ground as educators.  And I had another hope too—that of talking with the children of the village about their experiences with war.  Studying young kids, and especially how they cope with violence in their world, is my passionate interest and area of research.   Maybe I could learn from the children of Las Flores and, along with the other educators, find ways to offer them support.

Soon after we arrived in the village and were getting to know the children, I began to realize what they were living with.  Fighting could erupt at any hour of the day or night.  There were times that families had to pick up and run from the soldiers, then stay on the move for days, hiding in the mountains. All of the children of the village had lost several family members, often their mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers; and many had witnessed these killings.  While we were there, soldiers with machine guns pointing at us lined the dirt roads as we walked to the tin-roofed school and we all felt the terror that children in El Salvador lived with every day.

I realized soon after immersing myself in village life that to ask the children directly about the war would not be right.  If I asked questions that stimulated memories children were not ready to revisit, I might cause them to re-experience the trauma of war too vividly.  I was going to have to learn about the children’s lives in wartime in some less direct way.  But how?

I sat pondering this very question, when I saw the book Swimmy by Leo Lionni in the hands of a delegate who had carried it to the village in her suitcase.  Swimmy tells the story of how a little fish of the same name, intimidated by a fierce and dangerous tuna, joins in an organized effort with other tiny fish to chase the giant fish away.  I watched this Cambridge teacher read the story of Swimmy to a little boy named Santos who, at the end of the story, began pouring forth “his” story of how his life was just like Swimmy’s, how he’d run from the guns and bombs the way Swimmy ran from the tuna, and how the soldiers had killed his father and his little sisters.  Santos ended by saying, “I like Swimmy because he suffered very much the same as us.  We are the same as those little fish because we are united and we go forward.” After Santos had finished his story, we gave him some drawing paper and markers we’d brought with us, and he made a picture of Swimmy and the huge tuna.  Then Santos did a second drawing, a more realistic one this time—it showed a body lying in a cornfield with a helicopter overhead shooting bullets that went from the plane to the body.  On the helicopter, Santos wrote the letters “USA”.

For the next week, several of us sat with the children, one by one, reading the book Swimmy.  To my amazement, every child used Swimmy’s tale as a vehicle for telling his or her own story of hiding from soldiers, feeling scared, or witnessing atrocities.   Every child talked and talked, and then they drew and talked some more.  Most kids embraced the central message of hope conveyed in the book. Over and over, I heard statements like this one from Dora: “We are united in our community just like the little fish.  We have courage and we can continue on because we stay together.”  And then she added, “Thank you for the story of Swimmy.” 

Towards the end of our visit, the art teacher in our delegation showed everyone how to make a gigantic stuffed fish out of paper, decorate it and hang it from the ceiling of one of the classrooms.  The children worked together--cutting, coloring, tying and  gluing--and they were delighted.  I thought about all that had grown up around this one little paperback book.  The children had shared their stories, fears and feelings with their sister city visitors who listened with compassion and offered reassurance.  Through Swimmy’s story of survival and the activities it led to, along with the loving relationships that formed that week, the children of San Jose Las Flores gained a renewed sense of hope and support.  And the delegates, those of us who lived for a short time in a village pummeled by war, returned to our safe city altered by what we had seen and inspired by the strength and spirit of people engaged in a struggle for democracy and justice.

Nancy Carlsson-Paige, Ed.D., is a Professor of Education at Lesley University in Cambridge, MA where she has taught teachers for 30 years, and a research affiliate at Lesley’s Center for Children, Families, and Public Policy. She has co-authored four books and written numerous articles on media violence, conflict resolution, peaceable classrooms and global education. Nancy is a consultant for public television, and has worked on shows for Arthur, Postcards from Buster, Zoom and Fetch.  Her latest work is a book for parents and all adults concerned about children today called Taking Back Childhood.