Red Butterfly

Book review by
Andrea Beach, Common Sense Media
Red Butterfly Book Poster Image
Heartbreaking, uplifting, lyrical orphan tale in free verse.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Details about everyday life and culture in southern China, often compared and contrasted to American culture. Some vocabulary explained or defined, such as "qingcai" (a kind of Chinese cabbage) and "xie xie" ("thank you"). The author's note explains China's one-child policy and how it has led to a lot of child abandonment. Some details about caring for children with cerebral palsy.

Positive Messages

Don't ask for more than family, home, food, and safety, because that's everything. Humanity should matter, not paperwork, when it comes to adoption. "Family is whoever you decide it should be." The truth is sometimes hard to swallow, but it's good for you.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Kara, 11, models bravery, resourcefulness, being helpful, and loyalty to family and loved ones. She's very smart, even without any formal education, and longs to read Jane Austen. Kara's foster mother is mysterious but protective of Kara and lives at risk to her own freedom so she can raise her. There are no villains, but some minor characters who strictly adhere to policy cause a lot of damage to Kara's family. Toby, a physical therapist at an orphanage, is very kind and caring. Kara's adoptive parents are loving, understanding, and very supportive.

Violence & Scariness

An abandoned baby is briefly described. Kara's pet bird dies. The author's note at the end has a harrowing description of her personal experience at an orphanage where she saw a baby left to die. She goes on to describe how that affected her decisions about her life and career and the impact it had on her life long afterward.

Language

"Pee" used twice.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Red Butterfly is a debut novel written in first-person free verse. It tells the story of Kara, an 11-year-old Chinese girl taken in and fostered by an American woman living in China. Themes of family, loss, and identity are explored as Kara learns the truth about her foster mother's situation. Kara was born with one deformed hand, and although she's self-conscious about it, she doesn't dwell on limitations. A pet bird dies, and an abandoned baby is briefly described. The story has heartbreak and hard times, but Kara's remarkable resilience and determination make her worthy of admiration.

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What's the story?

Kara, who's Chinese by birth, was abandoned as an infant and is being raised by an older American woman in the city of Tianjin. Kara doesn't understand why she can't do normal things such as make friends and go to school, but she's pretty sure it's her fault they have to live such a secretive life. When her American sister comes to visit and falls ill, the truth about her family's life is revealed to the authorities. Kara's foster mother is taken away and may be deported. Kara would give anything to get back the life she'd always struggled against. Will she ever see her American family again?

Is it any good?

A.L. Sonnichsen's debut novel RED BUTTERFLY is a stunner. Told in lyrical, rhythmic first-person free verse, it perfectly captures heroine Kara's imperfect understanding of her world and quickly has the reader rooting for her as she struggles for a normal life. Bittersweet themes of loss and longing are deftly balanced with Kara's resilience, determination, and hope. The gorgeous language is a pleasure to read aloud, or you can read along with your big kids and tweens for an unforgettable story about the meaning of family.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about adoption. What does it mean, exactly? Were you adopted, or do you know someone who was?

  • What's free verse? Why do you think the author chose to use it to tell Kara's story?

  •  Do you agree that "family is whoever you decide it should be"? What does Kara mean by that? Why would she want that to be true?

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