Friday, November 30, 2012

Terrible Things: an Allegory of the Holocaust by Eve Bunting

Eve Bunting is a prolific and versatile writers with over 100 books to her credit.  On this blog alone, I have written about two of her World War II works - Spying on Miss Müller, a school story, and One Candle, a Chanukah story.  Among her considerable oeuvre is a small but powerful allegory of the Holocaust and what happens when one turns a blind eye to the terrible things that are being done to others instead of standing up for what was right.

The trouble begins in a forest where everything is fine and all the animals get alone well,  That is until the Terrible Things arrive, blocking out the sun and announcing that they have come for all the creatures who have feathers.  Though all the feathered creatures try to fly away, the Terrible Things had brought big nets, capture them all and take them away.  Seeing this, Little Rabbit doesn't understand what was wrong with having feathers, but Big Rabbit tells him not to say anything, and to mind his own business, so as not to anger the Terrible Things.

And so, it went from then on.  The Terrible Things come day by day for the animals of the forest, type by type.  And each time they come, the remaining animals look the other way and ignor the cries of the captured creatures.  Pretty soon, the only animals left are the rabbits.  But one day, the Terrible Things come for them, too...

Introducing the Holocaust to younger readers is never an easy task.  On the one hand, you don't want to scare them so much they can't get beyond their own fear.  On the other hand, as the Holocaust slips further and further into history, it may be difficult for kids to fully realize the importance of the lessons of tolerance we should have hopefully learned from it.  The indirect way Bunting presents both of these concerns in Terrible Things makes it a good book for readers to learn about the Holocaust and for helping kids to understand the consequences of behavior like that of the Rabbits, and for encouraging them to be brave enough to stand up for wrongs.  

Bunting words are chilling and are expertly illustrated in the haunting pencil drawing by Stephen Gammell, which add so much to the ominous feeling in this story.  He is spot on in the way he has captured the fear of the animals as the Terrible Things come for them, but in the sense of isolation each animal type feels as they try to flee:

"But there was no one left to help"
Years ago, I bought a postcard at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC and have kept it all these years to remind me of the very thing that Even Bunting is writing about in Terrible Things.  Most people will probably recognize the words, since it is a well know quote, but I though I would include it anyway:

Unlike Pastor Niemöller's quote, I should say that Terrible Things does end on a more hopeful note.   Though it is basically a picture book, Terrible Things can easily be used for elementary, middle school and even high school students.   And there are any number of excellent lesson plans available for this book that has so much to offer in terms of teaching kids about courage, tolerance, diversity as well as the Holocaust.  One example of an excellent lesson plan for older students can be found at the Mandel Project.

This book is recommended for readers age 6+
This book was bought for my personal library


  1. Wonderful post Alex. I'm not big on allegory for adults, to me it seems to be hiding the hard truths but for kids I think it's a wonderful idea since it hides what really human beings are capable of doing to one another.

    1. That's what I thought. The Holocaust is a hard subject to teach kids, but this is about intolerance, and I think kids can understand that, especially once they get into school.

  2. I have read many books by this author- but don't recall hearing of this one. I do a historical fiction unit with my 5th grade students at the end of the year and many of them have no idea about what has happened in history. This sounds like a book I must read so that I can share it with my students as part of my study. I also love the quote you included. So true!