By Bwalya Chileya
The Butterfly Heart is set in Zambia, and tackles themes such as friendship, trust and cultural understanding. It is a portrait of young siblings Bul-Boo and Madillo, and their friends Winifred, Fred and Ifwafwa. The story is told from two primary points of view and goes back and forth between them.
The book opens with a classroom scene; Bul-Boo is concerned about Winifred, a usually vivacious child who has recently become sedate and unengaged in class. Winifred rebuffs all attempts by Bul-Boo to share what has her so miserable, and Bul-Boo reluctantly brings into the fold her chatterbox twin Madillo and their neighbour, Fred. Together they try to unravel the mystery.
As the pieces of the puzzle start to fall into place and the children discover the enormity of the situation, they recruit Ifwafwa, the snake man, to help. Ifwafwa is a wise man of few words, and is very deliberate in his thoughts and actions. These traits are initially compelling reasons to recruit his help, but in their desperation to save Winifred before it is too late, Bul-Boo and Madillo grow impatient and wonder if their decision to rely on him fully was the right one.
I won’t ruin the story by revealing what Winifred is facing or how things turn out. You’ll need to read the book, trust me, it is well worth it. Ms Leyden’s writing is beautiful. Her descriptions are vivid, and I had little trouble seeing the different scenes in my head. I found myself fully engrossed in the story from the beginning to end. On the pages with insights and dialogue from the children’s characters I really believed I was reading the words and thoughts of children, and not an adult’s interpretation. In the hands of a less skilful writer the effort could have fallen flat.
Bul-Boo and Madillo are an entertaining set of twins. Madillo is very talkative and has a knack for exaggeration. One can’t help but smile at some of the things that come out of her mouth. She’s a child full of ideas in her head and no filter on her mouth. Thankfully Leyden doesn’t depict her as annoying child – she’s quite endearing. In the words of Bul-Boo, there is “nothing shadow-like or silent” about Madillo. On the other hand, Bul-Boo is quieter and more thoughtful. She has a keen mind and internalises a lot of her thoughts; since much of the book is written from her perspective it is very interesting to see how she sees the world around her and responds to different circumstances.
What took this book from very good to brilliant in my estimation is how Leyden incorporates various lessons within the story – lessons that are meaningful not only for children, the intended audience of this book, but also for adult readers.
Here’s an example. In describing the change of attitude by a tell-tale classmate following a prank by Winifred:
“…I think it’s the only time I have seen her play a trick on someone. It stopped him telling tales, anyway, and since the lollipop (a gesture of remorse from Winifred) he and Winifred have become a bit friendly. Maybe he was just mean because he didn’t know how to make friends.” (emphasis is added)I cannot neglect to mention the lesson in the central story of this book – the situation Winifred finds herself in. It is very timely, and I cannot remember a time this was tackled in children’s literature. Given that we see this through the eyes of children, it serves as a handy opening for dialogue.
I recommend The Butterfly Heart for readers of all ages. It is very well written and is a solid read. I would love to see this book added to reading lists in homes, reading groups and schools. You can read more about Paula Leyden’s biography here.