I decided to read Red Butterfly , a brand new middle grade novel in verse, because the author Amy Sonnichsen is an alumnus of the Hong Kong school where I taught for six years.
I’ve never met Amy Sonnichsen but both her mother Peggy and her sister Michelle were friends and colleagues of mine in Hong Kong. Michelle had often talked to me about her sister’s writing and last summer when Michelle and I sang together at a wedding in Minneapolis she told me her sister had signed a book deal with Simon and Schuster. I made a note to look for the book and found it on Amazon a couple of weeks ago. Red Butterfly tells the story of Kara who is taken in, but not officially adopted, by a couple from Montana when she is abandoned as a baby in the Chinese city of Tianjin. When Kara’s American parents can’t get their Chinese visas renewed her Dad returns to the United States but her mother refuses to leave and stays with Kara. They live in hiding in Tianjin for many years. When Kara is 11 she and her mother are discovered by the authorities and separated. Kara’s mother is deported and Kara who has a deformed hand is sent to an orphanage for children with health problems where she remains till another American family decides to adopt her and she goes to a new home in Florida . That’s an awful lot of isolation, separation and change for a little girl to cope with and Amy’s evocative poetry movingly describes Kara’s pain, hurt and anxiety.
Amy brings her own personal experience to the writing since she and her husband adopted a baby girl with medical challenges when they lived and worked in Tianjin for eight years.
Amy, her husband and five children currently make their home in Washington State.
Red Butterfly was the first middle grade novel written in verse that I’d read. I understand the genre is becoming very popular. I can see how kids who struggle with reading a long book with lots of print on each page might be drawn to the simpler format of a novel in verse. They can read shorter sentences on pages with lots of white space, and at least in the case of Red Butterfly, charming illustrations by Amy June Bates that help to bring the narrative alive. This is not to suggest that the story or ideas of a novel in verse are simple- Red Butterfly is a complex, thought-provoking story indeed. I thought the verse format lent honesty to the narrator’s voice and emotional impact to her story.
I found a wonderful quote from a former American Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner Rita Dove about novels written in verse…..
Novels in verse let the reader feel the weight of each word, the weight of each sentence, the weight of each line, the weight of the white space. Novels in verse heighten our attention to sound and our allegiance to silence.
Other posts about books set in Asia………..