Friday, July 29, 2011

The Butterfly Heart by Paula Leyden

Paula Leyden writes on her website: "I decided to write The Butterfly Heart for many reasons – but the initial idea came to me through a memory that has haunted me. While I was at primary school in Zambia, a school friend of mine was taken out of school and married off to an old man. At the time, this upset me deeply, and I felt helpless to do anything about it. So, in some ways, I wrote the story for her, and for young girls in many parts of the world that this has happened to and continues to happen to. These children, and they are children, are robbed of their childhoods, condemned to a world of pain, premature childbirth, HIV/AIDS, and death. This is not something that should happen to anyone, anywhere, ever."

Paula’s book reminded me of something I had forgotten. Growing up in Canada, I knew a girl who was taken out of school and sent away to marry someone when she was only 14. I had no concept of what it meant for her. All I knew was that she had disappeared out of my life completely.

You might wonder how in the world someone can take such a difficult and serious subject as child marriage and write a palatable story suitable for kids to read. The Butterfly Heart is a warm and engaging story, and I was drawn in from the first page. The book opens with: “My friend Winifred didn’t put her hand up today. Not once.” From those two sentences, I knew that Bul-Boo was thoughtful and observant, and that Winifred was not acting like her normal self.

I was worried I might find the world in the story too exotic and different for me to relate to, but Paula has done a fine job of creating an accessible, fond portrait of Zambia, its culture, and its people. I very quickly grew to care about Bul-Boo and her outgoing twin sister Madillo, their friends and family, and mysterious Ifwafwa, the snake man.

There is a gentle humour throughout the story, especially in the school scenes featuring Sister Leonisa’s rather unique teaching methods. Paula weaves traditional Zambian folklore into her tale, and there’s a whiff of magic in the air.

I was a little concerned that Paula might be breaking one of the golden rules of writing for children: get the grownups out of the way and let the kids solve the problem on their own. But what I found was that because I learned something of Ifwafwa’s childhood, his joys, sorrows, and fears, he seemed more vulnerable and childlike and not the all-powerful adult. And while Bul-Boo has asked for help, the children are actively trying to fix things themselves. The resolution is not what I expected, and it works wonderfully. So the golden rule may have bent a little, but it is still intact.

Paula has a second book being published by Walker and is writing a follow-up to The Butterfly Heart, and I am looking forward to both!


Fiona Griffin said...

Apart from dealing with a highly controversial subject, this book seems to be written wiht children in mind and dealt with in a way that would be appropriate for them. It is what I would aspire to as a writer and would truly love to learn more about this book. Ironically, as a writer, I am not a good reader, but I coudl see myself reading something like this.

A. Colleen Jones said...

That's a brilliant recommendation, Fiona! :)

Paula said...

Thanks for that comment Fiona, I appreciate it, and hope you do get to read it. And the very best of luck with your own writing!

Michelle said...

Great review Colleen. Very engaging. Made me want to read the book myself. Well done!

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