Saturday, 4 November 2017

The Butterfly Shell by Maureen White: book review by Hilary Hawkes

If you're looking for an insightful story for young readers, and perhaps for those who've been bullied, then consider The 

Butterfly Shell. It's a warm story, written in first person.

One of the worst kind of nerve-wracking days has arrived: that first day of Secondary School. As we all remember, that's part scary, part exciting for any girl (or boy too, of course, but this is a girls' school). It's an age when you're anxious about making new friends and fitting in anyway, but at her new school twelve-year-old Marie falls victim to a group of bullies. They call themselves The Super Six which they think makes them look important. But Marie privately renames them The Stupid Six.
Why the bullying happens is a bit of a mystery to Marie but, of course, it often begins for no obvious reason and is always totally unjust. She has other stuff to deal with as well… like feeling her family is different because in her home there is never enough noise or colour in the air, the discovery of the secret that she once had an older sister (also called Marie, which she feels is spooky) who died as a baby and the fact that, even now, her mum is still affected by this. And then there's that fragment of butterfly- shaped abalone shell…
Marie is in huge emotional pain and begins cutting herself and having nightmares in which she hears the ghost of her dead baby sister crying. And she has absolutely no one to confide in. I felt really distraught for her. In fact I couldn't put the book down because I didn't want to leave her in the middle of her sadness and confusion. This torment is reality for bullied children who fear the repercussions of telling, or who think they can't speak up because they might sound silly or weak, or they can't burden parents with their problems because the parents are already struggling with other things. So it all becomes a heavy secret. This really comes across in the story and readers will get that sense of what it's like for Marie stuck in her bad situation.
Marie is such a likeable character too. Girls (or boys) reading the book will know instinctively that she would be a true friend. Maybe, like me, they will feel the urge to either reach into the story and rescue her or jump in and make things better. This is the effect this insightful debut story will have on you. Marie does have one good friend – Stella, who is a bit odd but who doesn't care that she is.
The difficulty with keeping problems a secret is that they tend to get worse. Then they come to a head and this is exactly what happens in a very plausible and realistic way. As in real life fate plays a part in how things pan out, but it's a relief that it does. What a stressful journey Marie has to go on to get to that point though. That saying what doesn't kill you makes you stronger comes to mind and, well, this eventually really does apply to Marie. She has such courage.
I love books that are told from first person point of view with the main character telling their very own story – they can really draw you in. This works particularly well with books like this for young readers. It's well-written and full of Marie's personality – the sadness, but also her humour, her determination and her hopes. By the end of the book, which has a positive and satisfying ending, I really knew her.
So it's a story with preteen bullying and self-harm, yes, but it's also about secrets, friendships, trust, understanding people, being brave and being yourself and, well, about being nearly a teenager too. As a book aimed at older children it would be enjoyed most by readers who are around Marie's age. Just one more thing. When I first saw the cover of this book my initial reaction was oh, how plain. But then I spotted it: the butterfly-shaped image. The words of new beginnings, spoken by Marie at the start of the book before she looks back and begins to tell us her story, have been shaped into a butterfly image – just like the fragment of abalone shell found by her mother. So a fitting cover for a very enjoyable story.
This was my review of the book for The Book Bag Reviews.
Hilary Hawkes

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