Hằng knows that her baby brother Linh is waiting for her at 405 Mesquite Street in Amarillo, Texas. She knows that once she finds him she can stop planning, stop preparing. Except when Hằng does find 405 Mesquite Street, Linh isn’t the little boy and adoring brother she lost all those years ago. Worse, he may not be the one who needs to be saved anymore.
LeeRoy has one plan for the summer after he graduates high school: he is going to reinvent himself as a cowboy. More importantly, he is going to become a rodeo star. His university professor parents are less than thrilled but they don’t understand that LeeRoy has it all figured out. The first, most vital step is meeting Glenn Ford. Once they get to know each other LeeRoy is sure Ford will be only too eager to share tips with his newest protege.
There’s only one problem. Actually, if he’s being honest, there are a few since LeeRoy doesn’t know much about being a cowboy at all. But he can learn all that. The biggest problem is that he’s just too darned nice. That’s the only explanation for how he gets roped into driving a surly Vietnamese girl all the way to Amarillo to find her brother. LeeRoy tries to argue. After all, he’s a man with things to do. But any argument gets shot down as soon as it hits the air.
Hằng and LeeRoy start as strangers. By the end of the summer these most unlikely friends will both realize that there’s more to life than plans, than goals. And that sometimes the things–the people–you would never imagine can suddenly become as necessary as breathing in Butterfly Yellow (2019) by Thanhha Lai.
Butterfly Yellow is Lai’s debut YA novel. You may already be familiar with her award winning middle grade novels Inside Out & Back Again and Listen, Slowly. The novel alternates between chapters written in close third person following Hằng and LeeRoy’s perspectives.
Although they couldn’t be more different, Hằng and LeeRoy’s stories offer a certain symmetry in Butterfly Yellow. While Hằng has spent six years working towards a reunion with her brother and clings to the past at the cost of all other plans or dreams, LeeRoy imagines a new future where he can become someone else.
Lai uses language–both English and Vietnamese–to great effect throughout the novel creating an utterly unique reading experience complete with sentence trees. While Hằng can understand English when spoken slowly, she quickly realizes she still needs a Vietnamese lens to reframe her new surroundings and begins using phonetic Vietnamese sounds to form her English phrases–words LeeRoy is quick to follow thanks to his ear for language.
LeeRoy, meanwhile, has spent years immersing himself in Texas slang so that even before he could try to walk the walk of a real cowboy he was able to talk to the talk. Although LeeRoy’s meandering speech is filled with colloquialisms Hằng can’t decipher, the sheer volume of words allows her to understand him when other English speakers prove incomprehensible.
The push and pull between Hằng and LeeRoy drives the story as Hằng tries to get closer to her brother and works toward confronting the traumas she’s tried to forget from her journey from Vietnam to Texas and LeeRoy is forced to admit he may not be cowboy material after all.
Both characters struggle with what comes next when they realize that the targets they have been chasing–the benchmarks that would signify success–have changed or may no longer exist at all. Hằng and LeeRoy become unlikely supports for each other as they confront these changes and trade as many moments of comfort as they do barbs in their prickly relationship.
Butterfly Yellow is a gorgeous, evocative story about the people you hold onto at all costs, the choices you make to be your best self even when you aren’t sure who that is, and the resilience you need to build a life when it feels so much easier to choose bitterness or failure. Highly recommended.
Possible Pairings: Lovely War by Julie Berry, The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui, Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings by Margarita Engle, Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee, Picture Us in the Light by Kelly Loy Gilbert, A Step From Heaven by An Na, The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X. R. Pan, Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan, Holes by Louis Sachar, Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli, This Time Will Be Different by Misa Sugiura, The Kitchen God’s Wife by Amy Tan
You can also check out my interview with Thanhha Lai here on the blog.