The Enemy There are two versions of the book, they have different covers and slight variations in the text: for a younger reader (most recent English edition: Schwartz & Wade Books, 2009. ISBN 9780375845000) and for an older reader (most recent English edition: Wilkins Farago, 2013. ISBN 9780958557184). , written by Davide Cali and illustrated by Serge Bloch, is an anti-war picture book that was published in collaboration with Amnesty International. Find out how the book was discussed at two readings: with elementary and middle schoolers.
On the cover there’s a smiling little man in camouflage with a flower in his mouth. Above him is the title of the book—“the ENEMY.” I ask the children what they think this book may be about. “The Germans!” says a sweet-looking girl. Yeah, we’re off to a good start….
This is actually the second time we’ve organized a reading of this book at the library. The first was a week ago—it’s camp season in the city and every couple of days a particular age group shows up from the neighboring school. I can paint a general picture of my audience, since the children’s reactions are often quite similar. They listen close and look even more closely as we read the first few pages, with their striking, laconic text.
Look. Do you see two holes? Look more closely.
Do you see the soldiers in those holes?
The children scrutinize the pictures with a scattered “Where?”—“Right there!” The boys set about explaining what trenches are. The girls listen attentively.
They are enemies.
Only then do we have the bright title page. So what were those first few pages that preceded it? No matter—now we have a main character. Though, to be honest, his appearance confuses the children, and will continue to do so throughout the book: “Who’s that? The enemy?”—“No, that’s him! The enemy is over there.” That’s how similar the two soldiers are.
My audience is in the first and second grades and so they really care about the pictures. Many of the children provide a running commentary on them as we read and some even contribute sound effects. After I read “Every morning I shoot at him,” someone says “Pow!”. As the story progresses, the children ask about the main character’s appearance. “Why is he so thin?” “Why does he have a white beard?” My listeners start to wonder about the hero’s life outside the text: “Where did he get the food from?” “He hasn’t shaved for a while, has he?”
There’s a noticeable buzz when we see the picture of the enemy as the main character imagines him. It’s a huge departure from all the previous (and the following) depictions of him. We see something large and red, with vague features. The tension gives way to liveliness. The children deliberate: “Who’s that?” “It’s a killer!” There are smiles, whispered jokes, and the boys articulate everything they see: “Knife!” “Blood.” “Ahhh.” “Oooh.”
At the second reading, as we reach the words “It is raining again,” it starts to pour right outside our window. The children yell: “It’s raining here too! It’s magic!” and there really is something magical in the way books sometimes break into the world around us.
At both readings, students were intrigued by the page with the commanders. They’re unlikely depictions, the sketches somehow careless and almost too cartoonish. The children ask about the general in sunglasses: “Who’s that? Is he blind?” They laugh.
And then we get to the climax of the book: the main character decides to kill the enemy in order to end the senseless war. My young listeners are sympathetic to the idea and certain the mission will go off without a hitch. This must be the happy end they envision: all you need for peace is to kill the evil enemy. They don’t doubt in the slightest that the enemy is evil, at least not yet. It’s almost amusing that their understanding essentially comes down to “The good guy is a friend, and the bad guy is the enemy.”
On the next spread, our hero is no longer alone: beside him is a lion. At the first reading, the children fell for the disguise—they only saw the enemy’s nose peeking out of the lion’s mouth after the group reading was over, when several kids were leafing through the book and, amazed by their discovery, ran off to share it with the others. At the second reading the listeners laughed at first: “Look, the lion is crawling on his hands and knees!” One of the more attentive girls figured it out: “That’s the enemy!” By then the tension had almost lifted, but there was still the intrigue—what would happen next? We had a few predictions: “They’ll change places!”
Now, careful listening gives way to an impatient buzz: as the hero creeps up to the enemy’s trench, the audience erupts. There’s the echo of distinct phrases (“He wants to see his face!”), there’s discussion, commentary, impatience to reach the next page….
And then the real world breaks through the fiction: there are photographs amidst the illustrations. These are the enemy’s family members. Someone volunteers a hesitant “maybe the enemy is good too?” and over the next few pages that hunch grows into exclamations and certainty. At this point, the children start losing track of which soldier is which. Both are so alike and both are “good”... Finally, we have the last spread: the two former enemies throw each other bottled messages about the end of the war. The book ends with an ellipse.
It’s time for the book activity: we discuss whether we need wars at all and how they can be avoided, we consider symbols of peace. As the children draw, I think of how I associate The Enemy with World War I, when it had reached the point described in All Quiet on the Western Front, and also a bit with the Crimean War, at least with the scene in Sevastopol Sketches, when Leo Tolstoy suggests arranging combat between two soldiers from the opposing sides, instead of fighting major battles. My thoughts are interrupted by the sweet-looking girl who’d spoken up earlier. She asks politely if I’ll finish reading the book. When I tell her we have, she’s not satisfied: “We never found out if the war actually ended!”
Outside, the rain continues to pour.
Another summer camp group, another reading of The Enemy. This time, the children that come in are 10-13 years old, not at all like the little kids I’d read this book to before. Naturally, the reading goes differently as well. We begin much the same way: I show the group the cover with a little man in military uniform and a flower in his teeth. I ask them what they think the book might be about and if it’s meant for kids. My listeners decide right away that it’s a children’s book about war. From there, they come up with possible variations on that theme: “It’s about how children lived during the war!” “It’s about how children fought in battles!” “It’s about children in concentration camps!”... Without waiting for any further flights of fantasy, I start to read.
The kids quiet down as we read the choppy laconic text of the first few spreads. All the children look attentively at the book, even those that were about to take out their gadgets. All in all, picture books are ideal for group readings: the text is short and so attention spans don’t falter, and interest in the next illustration doesn’t allow anyone to get too distracted by games on their phone. (I always show everyone each spread after reading it and turn the book so that every listener can see.) The topic of war, of course, ensures the boys’ interest. Girls almost always listen politely, even if they’re not particularly interested in the plot; boys, when they’re bored, will quickly find something else to do.
It’s when we get to the fifth spread or so that a girl in the middle raises her hand and asks: “Did an adult even draw those pictures?” I read to her that the illustrator, Serge Bloch, was the recipient of a Gold Medal from the Society of Illustrators. Yet another question concerns the main character’s beard: “Did he get old already?” And then there are no further questions, and the kids are ready to follow along attentively.
This time my listeners don’t notice the trick with the enemy’s lion disguise but they do sense that the hero is unlikely to kill his enemy on the pages of such a childish (as they see it) book. This thought, however, fills them with indignation. After the reading, there’s a heated debate about whether The Enemy is in fact a children’s book.
The boys are angry at the author and the hero: “That would never happen!” “It’s a children’s book because it makes no sense!” “Yeah, why did he crawl?” “If he had a bottle he could’ve made a Molotov cocktail!”...The kids gradually conclude that the book is about a not-too-recent war, since the characters shoot at each other rather than throw grenades. They get into an argument about whether there were energy bars during WWI. The girl from the middle of the group suggests that the book may not be so childish after all, since the warring soldiers ended up thinking the same thing. But the boys continue to insist that it’s a book for little kids, since nobody gets killed, at least not in the book. We can’t quite get to the point, and so we’re stuck at a superficial level, discussing what may or may not be true.
I hold out hope that, since the text elicited so many emotions, it may lead to some reflection as well. But we wrap up the discussion and move onto the activities. It’s the first time I’m trying out the “Book Museum” approach, which involves creating a sort of item-based interpretation of the events, setting, and plot of a given book.
Almost all my listeners have been to war museums. The kids are familiar with the items you would find there: panoramas and dioramas of battles, maps, helmets, uniforms, weapons, documents, letters, and paintings… I divide our big group into three smaller ones, give each a third of the text and ask them to come up with artifacts for a “museum” based on this book. Everyone gets right to work and soon we have the following items and drawings:
A soldier’s manual (with text according to the book: “You must kill the enemy, before he kills you...The enemy is not a human being.”)
Another note from the (enemy’s) manual: 1. The enemy is merciless. 2. Don’t leave the trenches at night. 3. Disguise yourself.
“Cannon-fodder” (a picture from the book)
A soldier’s rations: vitamins, а canteen, dried meat (a lizard, if it comes down to it)
Camuflage uniform (spelling left unedited)
Pictures of hostilities (evidently outside the scope of the story itself)
A message in a bottle
As the “Book Museum” approach suggests, we conclude by coming up with an “alphabet book” of the emotions elicited in the readers or characters of the book. I name letters and the kids enthusiastically come up with feelings for each. They do get a little off-track coming up with regular words (and certain inappropriate ones, though I can’t say some don’t express the main character’s predicament). For “I” they say “indifference” (their own), “B” is “boredom.” I don’t believe it. Or do I not want to believe it?
It’s hard to say what my listeners got from this reading. Their eyes and faces told me they weren’t actually bored or indifferent. I still haven’t decided whether I did the right thing by not directing our discussion to the main idea of he book, which the younger children had understood at the previous two readings. The older kids experienced The Enemy in their own way. I’d like to think this book was like a planted seed, which will sprout one day. Then again, what if The Enemy is truly a children’s book and needs a child’s pure and impartial heart to really get it?
Translated from the Russian by Alisa Cherkasova
Cover picture: goodreads.com
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