Review: The Boy with the Butterfly Mind by Victoria Williamson

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This new book from Victoria Williamson brims over with emotion as it flits between the alternate voices of Elin and Jamie, two very different children who are pulled together into a new blended family.

Elin is an eleven year-old, struggling to come to terms with her parents’ broken marriage and hoping that if she lives up to her dad’s “ perfect princess” label he will return to the family. When her dad left she felt “ like he’d taken my wings and the blue summer sky with him.” She clings to her precious memories of life in their previous fairy tale home and bottles up her anger at her new circumstances, only revealing how she truly feels in the fantasy story that she adds to during her lonely, friendless break times at school. 

Meanwhile, Jamie is ignored by his mum’s new boyfriend Chris, but hopes that when the three of them move to California the American doctors will be able to fix his broken brain. He wants an alternative reality to his current one of being “the boy who can’t concentrate for more than half a second before his mind’s fluttering off somewhere else like a butterfly.

When Jamie’s mum delivers the devastating news that Chris does not want him to accompany them to America, but instead he is to move in with his Dad’s new girlfriend and her daughter in Glasgow, Jamie’s violent and destructive reaction is absolutely heart-wrenching. His reflections on his anger-management issues show his struggles and his self-awareness at the same time as his utter inability to control his behaviour when the chaos in his brain becomes unbearable.

Elin is furious at this messy arrival into her home and even more enraged when Jamie joins her class at school, causing disruption to the one area where she feels in control. She labels him “the enemy” and decides that she will have to get rid of him and his dad Paul if she is to have any hope of getting her own dad back to live “happily ever after with just me and Mum.” 

The clever story structure lets you inside the minds of the two young protagonists, and seeing the tale play out through their perceived realities gives the reader an incredible empathy with the contrasting viewpoints. Elin is a difficult character to warm to, her dismissiveness of kind, gentle Paige, her absolute refusal to meet her Dad’s new daughter or girlfriend and her desire to put her fairytale family back together all begin to make sense when seen through the prism of her desolation at losing her father. Meanwhile Jamie is a hugely sympathetic character with a kind heart and a continual struggle with ADHD. In one incredibly moving paragraph he sums up his reality in these words:

It’s funny how just four letters can mean the difference between being normal and being the kind of monster whose own mother moves to a different country to get away from him.

The extreme and deceitful measures that Elin takes to remove Jamie from her home appear to be unforgivable, but the reader has to take Jaimie’s big-hearted lead and believe that redemption is possible. 

In addition to the sensitively written characters of Jamie and Elin, I think that the character of Jamie’s dad Paul is wonderfully realised especially as kind, sensitive Dads are largely missing from MG fiction. Right from the start it is clear that he goes out of his way to respect Elin’s space and to show her understanding despite her coldness towards him, and his devotion to helping his son is all-encompassing. The quietly diplomatic Paige, a lonely character who blossoms as her friendship with Jamie develops is another key element in this story.

I loved the book’s structure, progressing through the different stages of a butterfly’s development and the way that this device was included in the children’s science project. The emotional journey of Elin and Jamie’s metamorphosis into a new blended family is handled with such sensitivity by Victoria Williamson that it teaches us all a valuable lesson in empathy – both for children living with ADHD and those suffering emotionally following divorce. This is one of those books that I know will stay in my heart long after I finished reading it. 

 

I absolutely recommend this book to everyone of age 10+, and I cannot wait to see what Victoria Williamson writes next.

It is heart-warming to see that 20% of the author royalties are being donated to Children 1st, a Scottish charity helping families and children.

If you love this book, make sure you read The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle by the same author.

 

Review: The Fox Girl and The White Gazelle by Victoria Williamson

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This is the most wonderful story of survival, courage, and a developing friendship between two very different girls, set in a run-down housing estate in Glasgow. The story is told in short chapters, alternating between the voices of Caylin and Reema, and occasionally interspersed with the poetic thoughts of an injured mother fox and she desperately seeks to raise and protect her cubs. This interesting structure only increased the majestic beauty of this book for me, with the fox seeming to be a metaphor for Caylin and Reema’s search for “home”.

When you first meet Caylin Todd at the start of the book, she seems to be the most unsympathetic character imaginable as she plots, and then carries out, an ambush on a classmate to steal her birthday money. However, you soon learn that Caylin’s single mum has become an alcoholic, following the death of Caylin’s grandfather, and with the benefits payment being consumed by vodka, Caylin must either steal or starve. The descriptions of Caylin’s chaotic homelife are so realistically heartbreaking, and her terror that she will be separated from her mum if anyone should find out, force you to be sympathetic towards her.

Reema is also from a broken family. In her case she has had to flee from her comfortable, middle-class life in Aleppo and has arrived in Glasgow, with part of her family as a refugee. She is struggling to overcome trauma, homesickness, the disappearance of her beloved older brother and the sight of her once strong father confined to a wheelchair following a poison gas attack, when she is re-housed in the same block of flats as Caylin.

The two girls take an instant dislike to each other, Reema is horrified when she spots Caylin shop-lifting and Caylin dislikes the feeling that she is being judged by the new girl. However, as both girls are moved by the plight of an injured mother fox, hiding out behind the bins, and a shared talent for running, a hesitant friendship begins to develop. Can Caylin open herself up to trust, and can Reema overcome her homesickness for Syria and embrace her new surroundings? You will have to read this incredible story to find out.

I loved many aspects of this book. Firstly, Victoria Williamson is an astonishingly good writer, her descriptions of the struggles faced by the two protagonists take you right inside their hopes and fears and open your eyes to the very difficult lives that so many children face. Woven over the “issues” is a terrific story of a developing friendship, and by the final chapters I was on the edge of my seat and breathless to find out how the various strands of the narrative would end. I think that the story of Caylin and Reema will stay with me for a long time. Finally, I read that 20% of the author royalties for this novel will be donated to the Scottish Refugee Council, so not only are you buying a great book, but you are helping those less fortunate than yourself too. I would rate this book as a “must-have” for all Upper KS2 classrooms, school libraries and read-for-empathy lists.

If you love this book, why not try The Boy at the Back of the Class?