8/21/13

When the Butterflies Came, by Kimberley Griffiths Little (with thoughts on what makes a book speculative fiction)

I was intrigued by When the Butteflies Come, by Kimberley Griffiths Little (Scholastic, April 2013, middle grade), for a longish while before actually reading it--the premise appealed lots.  And indeed, I found it an enjoyable read.

Tara's has died, leaving her a series of clues and a set of keys, and as Tara unlocks this string of secrets in her grandmother's big old southern house, she finds each step taking her further into a mystery of the Micronesian butterflies her grandmother was studying...and into danger.   Gradually she realizes that she must thwart whoever it is who wants to get rich from the fantastical powers of  the butterflies...a person who might well want her dead if she learns too much about their secrets.  And so Tara and her big sister (a reluctant player in unraveling the mystery) use the plane tickets their grandmother hide for Tara to find to travel to the island of Chuuk, a place made almost a paradise by the magic of the butterflies...where they must uncover the identity of the bad guy and do some serious thwarting.

I enjoyed the "girl exploring secrets of big old house" element lots, just as I had expected I would.   Tara was a fine heroine, with a nicely rounded character (her sister I liked less well, but she was also a perfectly believable character).

The butterfly mystery, also as expected, knowing my own reading taste as I do, was interesting, but less immediately appealing--I am not quite comfortable with fictional insects, no matter how beautiful, being capable of too much initiative.  In addition, I am always a tad doubtful of island paradises and their happy inhabitants needing to be saved from greedy Westerners.  Here, however, it is a necessary part of the plot, and part of the fantastical side of things, so I made a conscious decision to try to let it pass.

The reason I finally got around to reading it is because it may well be nominated for the Cybils. As Elementary/Middle Grade Speculative Fiction organizer, I will have to opine as to whether it will be more at home in regular Middle Grade, or with my category's fantasy and sci fi books. 

There is no question as to the un-naturalness of the butterflies.  They are far beyond any butterfly alive today.   But are the speculated butterflies enough to push the book into the impossible realm of sci fi/fantasy?

Lots of books that don't read as speculative fiction have things that are improbable, non-existent, and unnatural in them, that are extra add-ons, as it were, to the main story.  To count as speculative fiction, I think the unnatural phenomena, not possible in real life, have to be an integral part of the book such that you could not remove these elements and still have a book that works.  Though I could imagine the book featuring a really special endangered species of butterfly needing to be saved, the fact that these are impossible in a variety of ways is what sets the whole story in motion, motivates the characters, and makes it interesting and appealing (for those able to accept butterflies with preternatural abilities.

Then there's the question of where the book would be happiest.  Is it speculative fiction enough to hold its own against griffins and space ships?  Or is it so seeped in the unreal that it can't be compared to an ordinary mystery of clever kids and strange coincidence?  I am leaning hard toward the former--one of the reasons I myself read lots of fantasy and science fiction is that there is so much room to push the boundaries of the genre, and so, while I can't think of much middle grade fantasy/sci fi that's comparable to the way this book mixes the believable and the speculative, I think that's just fine.

All that being said, I now am stuck with regard to labeling this post; neither fantasy or sci fi feels quite right...bother.  I guess I'll go with fantasy...

Perfect reader:  10 year old girl who likes butterflies and hidden clues, who thinks her big sister isn't being quite loving enough.

7 comments:

  1. You just reminded me of my sister, who is terrified of butterflies.

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  2. Glad you enjoyed this. It's the first book I read by Kimberley and I really enjoyed it, more than I thought I would. Excited it'll be nominated for the Cybils.

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    1. I was just assuming it might be nominated...maybe you can!

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  3. I loved reading your thoughts about what makes a speculative fiction. I haven't read the book yet but I think you're not wrong going with fantasy which is a broader qualification.
    I have the book waiting on me in my tbr pile. I need to hurry and read it.
    Thanks for the feature. :)

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    1. You're very welcome; I hope you enjoy it!

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  4. I put our copy in mystery, which solved that dilemma nicely, but I think I would have leaned more towards fantasy given only those choices. To me, the special-ness of the butterflies seemed more magical, despite the scientific studying being done.

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