Red Butterfly by A. L. Sonnichsen

Red Butterfly

A. L. Sonnichsen, Author

Amy June Bates, Illustrator

Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, Free Verse, Feb. 2, 2016

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Abandonment, Abnormality, Adoption, Family relationships, China, Multicultural

Synopsis: Eleven-year-old Kara never met her birth mother. Abandoned as an infant in Tianjin, she was born with only two fingers on her right hand. She was taken into the home of an elderly American couple living in China. Her parents never tell authorities about finding Kara or try to formally adopt her, which leaves Kara without an identify. When papa’s teaching job is finished he returns to Montana.  Her mama remains because she can’t bear to part with Kara.

Much of Kara’s life is isolated to keep her safe. She has a daily routine that includes study, but doesn’t attend a Chinese school or have any friends. Her English is excellent, but she can’t read or write in Chinese. When her loud and overbearing American half-sister Jody comes for a visit and ends up in the hospital, the authorities are suspicious. They discover her mama’s visa expired and Kara’s is taken to an orphanage, where she is put up for adoption.

Why I like this book:

This is a complex and multi-layered story where Kara is the innocent victim of secrecy and poor choices made by her foster parents. A.L. Sonnichsen has written a deeply moving story about Kara learning to find her voice and discovering that love knows no boundaries. It is an emotional read.

Free verse is the perfect medium to share this story because it is told in Kara’s voice, which shows her confusion, desperation and loss. The language is beautifully executed, lyrical and carefully crafted with skill and a lot of depth. The story is beautifully paced and a quick read. Amy June Bates pen and ink  illustrations add a creative flare to the spare text.

The plot is courageous and complicated. A.L. Sonnichsen delves deeply into the loneliness of a pre-teen trying to make sense of her mother’s secretive behavior. When the walls crumble around Kara, she has to find her way forward. She begins to find her strength at the orphanage where she helps care for the abandoned children with disabilities. She learns to build trust with some compassionate souls who try to make things right for her.

I enjoyed learning that the author grew up in Hong Kong and spent eight years there as an adult, where she was visited many local orphanages. Her passion for the abandoned children became the inspiration for the story.  Chinese law is complicated and it took the author and her husband seven years to adopt their daughter from a Chinese orphanage. During that time she worked with an organization that worked to improve conditions in orphanages.

Resources: There is a beautiful Author’s Note that talks about her personal experiences in China, as well as the “fall-out” from China’s one-child policy. There is a Reading Group Guide at the end, which would be perfect for classroom discussions. Visit the author at her website.

Check other Middle Grade review links on author Shannon Messenger’s Marvelous Middle Grade Monday post.

One by Sarah Crossan

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Sarah Crossan, Author

Green Willow Books, Fiction, Sep. 15, 2015

Pages: 388

Suitable for Ages: 14 -18

Themes: Conjoined twins, Sisters, High School, Family relationships, Love, Novel in free verse

Opening: “Here we are. And we are living. Isn’t that amazing? How we manage to be at all.”

Synopsis: Grace and Tippi are 16-year-old conjoined twins, connected at their hip. They have two heads, four arms, two hearts and two pairs of lungs and kidneys, and share two legs. They have been conjoined since birth and have beat the odds for survival. The twins love each other and are happy to be together. They can’t imagine risking a dangerous operation to be separated.

For Grace and Tippi, wearing the same skirt is normal. Linking their arms around each other helps them keep their balance as they each walk with one crutch. Listening to the other breath at night is comforting. Sharing the flu is worrisome.

Their parents shield Grace and Tippi as much as possible from the public and homeschool them. With donations running out and medical bills mounting, there is a strain on the family and the girls will have to attend high school in the fall. The best part of school is Gracie and Tippi’s friendship with Yaseem and Jon. They add some joy, support, adventure, and a lot of comic relief to the story.

Gracie is the first to notice something is happening to them and doesn’t want to admit it to Tippi. As the truth emerges, they are about to face a choice that could change their lives forever.

Why I like this book:

  • Sarah Crossan writes her compelling novel in free verse, which makes her story a more authentic, sensitive and beautiful read. The first-person narration by Gracie, the more introspective twin, is intimate and humorous, painful and breathtaking. The story is realistic and the characters believable.
  • The plot is a raw, gripping and engaging journey for Gracie and Tippi — and for readers. The twins’ health is fragile and doctors don’t know what to expect medically. However they embrace life with enthusiasm. Their friendship with school friends allow them to feel some normalcy and freedom to act like teens. Family life is challenging when both parents lose their jobs and they have to move. Gracie and Tippi know there is one big way to help their family with expenses — selling their story.
  • Crossan has done a remarkable amount of research, both medically and historically. The physiology of Grace and Tippi is “loosely based on the bodies of Masha and Dasha Krivoshlyapova” from Russia. Make sure you read the Author’s Note at the end.
  • Although the target audience for One is teenagers, it is also a powerful novel for adults. It speaks to themes of love, family relationships, inner strength, resilience, tolerance and diversity.

Sarah Crossan is the author of the duology Breathe and Resist, as well as the acclaimed novel-in-verse The Weight of Water, which was short-listed for the Carnegie Medal. Visit Sarah Crossan at her website.