Red Butterfly, by A.L. Sonnichsen, illustrated by Amy June Bates published in 2015 by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Such a yearning in the human heart — to belong someplace. To belong to someone — a family; a group. Someone.
Once I wrote the word “belonging” here, I began to wonder: What is the origin of this word? What does it mean, to belong?
Apparently it comes from Middle English. It means “to be appropriately assigned to.” Here — Here is where you can thrive.
The “long” part carries the sense of being together-with. There is a sense of a rightness about the place and company you find yourself together with. It’s where you fit. It’s the just right spot where we feel settled and at peace, in the company of people who know and love us.
Red Butterfly is a poignant story of one girl’s hunger for belonging in the midst of a tumult of displacement. It’s a riveting, emotional novel-in-verse, and I highly recommend it for middle-grade readers through adults.
Kara is Chinese by birth, abandoned as an infant, and raised in China by an American woman. Her upbringing has been peculiar. Chinese on the outside; American on the inside. Her mother cloisters herself in their apartment and cautions Kara against over-mingling with others.
We are as much in the dark as Kara about the strangeness of this life. Why is this devoted mother so secretive? Why is an American woman staying locked away in China while her husband and grown daughter live in Montana? Why must Kara remain so isolated?
With the answers comes a monumental upheaval in Kara’s life. A tearing away that is bewildering, frightening, and searing to her very core.
In one terrible flash, strangers, it seems, have more of a say in where Kara belongs than she does. Who decides who we are and where we belong? How do we face separation from the people we love and places where we feel at home? Can we be separated from our true self and how do we right that? How do we adjust to new spaces of belonging?
The book employs a metaphor of metamorphosis, with sections titled Crawl, Dissolve, and Fly. Kara is an immensely compelling character and we feel, viscerally, the huge, raw emotions of her journey. It’s an amazingly honest, unflinching story, borne out of the author’s experience and others’ experiences. Small, whispery, illustrations in black-and-white complement the mood of the text.
Although I believe throngs of people will love this book, let me recommend it especially to a few groups of people:
Third-culture-kids and their families.
Foster families and fostered children ages 11 and up.
Those with a heart for orphans and adoption, especially international or special needs adoptions.
If that’s not you, don’t skip it! But if it is — don’t miss this powerful story. Dominated by female characters, it will appeal more to girls, I think. A lovely Author’s Note tells of her own experiences which led to the book.