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Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Red Butterfly, by A. L. Sonnichsen, with illustrations by Amy June Bates. Simon & Schuster, 2015. $19.99 ages 10 and up

"What would it be like
to take my red bicycle
and ride

I wonder if I could reach
the snaking Great Wall
or Hanzhou with
its gardens and bridges ... "

I am, once again, awed by the powerful story that can be told in a verse novel. Kara's strong, sorrowful first person narrative is divided into three separate parts ... Crawl, Dissolve and Fly. As we read from one to the next we learn about the feelings that Kara is struggling to untangle and the mysteries of the life she has been leading in China.

She is a Chinese child with a disability who lives with a white, older mother. They have little money. She cannot go to school. Her mother is reclusive and not forthcoming with the circumstances of Kara's earlier life. Mama does promise that the day will come when they can travel to Montana to live with Kara's father.

As Kara pieces together her story she learns that when her Mama found her abandoned, she made the decision to stay in China and raise the poor baby. When the authorities discover that Mama has no official papers, Kara is placed in an orphanage awaiting adoption. A family from the United States expresses interest in taking her into their home in Florida. They have previously adopted other children from China.

Imagine the conflict for a young girl! This is a powerful and impressive debut novel. A. L. Sonnichsen did grow up in Hong Kong, and later lived there as an adult. Her experiences there help to shape the novel, and create a backdrop for the plight of many children caught up in the one-child policy that determines family life for many. That fact that Kara is considered disabled (she has a malformed hand) would also have played a role in the decision-making:

"This is why my birth mother
 didn’t keep me,
why she decided to try again
for someone better."

As she makes her way in a new and unfamiliar world, Kara shows that she has the will to survive despite the odds and the many complex issues that ultimately change her life for the better.

"Em teaches me a song
to play for Mama,
for when Mrs. Gurnsey
lets me open the computer again.

It has twinkly notes
up high
that I make
one by one
with my nubs of fingers

and deep notes
down low
I pound with my regular hand.

All my fingers are happy
when I play,
     even the not-quite-formed ones."

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