Butterfly Yellow: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

After six years and two months of careful preparation and unspeakable hardships, Hằng finally arrives in Texas in the summer of 1981.

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

Everybody Sees the Ants: A Review

Everybody Sees the Ants by A. S. KingThere are some things you need to know about Lucky Linderman.

First: His mother is a squid. She swims more than two hundred laps every day. No matter what. Even when Lucky has some new bruises courtesy of Nader McMillan or her husband once again flakes on his familial duties.

Second: His father is a turtle. Lucky’s grandfather never came home from Vietnam and Lucky’s dad never recovered. He spends all of his time hiding in his shell or working at the restaurant instead of actually being a father.

Third: Lucky doesn’t smile. Ever. Not since asking one stupid question for one stupid project in Social Studies (the class actually isn’t stupid–Lucky kind of likes it). He is definitely not going to smile since that one stupid question brought him nothing but trouble and the renewed hatred of Nader McMillan.

Fourth: Ever since Lucky was seven he’s been having strange dreams. Now the dreams are his only refuge as he spends each night in the war-torn jungles of Laos trying to finally bring his grandfather home from the war he could never leave.

But even dreams that seem as real as Lucky’s can only last so long before it’s time to really wake up in Everybody Sees the Ants by A. S. King.

Find it on Bookshop.

Everybody Sees the Ants is King’s follow-up to her Printz Honor book Please Ignore Vera Dietz. It was also a finalist for the 2011 Cybils in Young Adult Fiction which is how I came to read it.

There are certain books that I enjoy upon first reading them. But the more I think about them, the more I really look at all of the little details, the more problems I have. Everybody Sees the Ants was that kind of book.

While not actually a mystery, Everybody Sees the Ants is structured in such a way that readers do not initially get a linear story nor do they get the full story. Anyone looking for a puzzle to put together will enjoy the multiple angles of this book. Lucky is a shockingly authentic* narrator with a voice and story all his own. King’s writing is painfully intense and quirky as Lucky drags readers through dense Laos jungle and the even deeper problems of his own life.

Unfortunately these strengths are not complemented by the book’s plot which is filled with numerous holes and seemingly random details that added little to the plot itself. Without delving into specifics, King never fully explains the nature of Lucky’s dreams which creates a fundamental problem with the structure of the book. Similarly, readers never really understand why one teenaged boy is able to not only bully but literally terrorize an entire town with absolutely no intervention from any adults or the authorities.** Other moments were easily predicted or simply heavy-handed as King was at pains to make certain points about Lucky’s relationships with his parents and the world at large.

If you aren’t looking for a book that needs to answer all of your questions or stand up to a close reading, Everybody Sees the Ants might still appeal.

*Unlike me, you probably already knew that King was a female author. I didn’t know that while reading the book and was completely floored to find out A. S. King was not a man. That’s how authentic Lucky’s voice is in this story.

**I maintain my stance that Nader should have been institutionalized as a psychopath long before the events of this book started.

Possible Pairings: Leverage by Joshua C. Cohen, Liar by Justine Larbalestier, The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl by Barry Lyga, The Piper’s Son by Melina Marchetta, A Trick of the Light by Lois Metzger, The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, This is Not a Test by Courtney Summers

Exclusive Bonus Content: One of the biggest problems I had reading this book is one most readers will not have. Fantastical things happen to lucky throughout the course of the story. These things are called elements of magical realism but, for me, they pushed the book firmly into the fantasy genre. While judging this book as a potential winner in the Cybils’ YA Fiction category, that became a problem for me. I struggled with whether something fantastical was really happening or if Lucky was just delusional. Because if Lucky is really that delusional, how can a reader believe anything else he says? If you expect an answer to that kind of question this is not the book for you.

The Brocaded Slipper: A Review or The Trouble With Fairy Tales

The Brocaded Slipper coverI like mythology. I like fairy tales. I like Disney movies. I like anti-princess books even though I feel like the term is kind of aggressive and confrontational. That said, it’s easy to forget, with sanitized Disney/picture book versions aplenty, how very creepy some fairy tales can be.

Such was my main difficulty with The Brocaded Slipper and Other Vietnamese Tales (1982) by Lynette Dyer Vuong with illustrations by Vo-Dinh Mai. Although these stories originate in Vietnam, the stories have familiar counterparts in the West collected by the Brother Grimm in Europe. Readers well-versed in fairy tales will recognize Cinderella, Thumbelina, Rip Van Winkle, the Frog Prince, and even Goose Girl (who I must admit I did not recognize). Readers familiar with the original Grimm stories, or even the tales of Hans Christian Andersen, will recognize the brutal, grim, tone found in so many “original” fairy tales.

Just to give an idea of what I mean, in the title story (a version of Cinderella) the heroine Tam achieves happily ever after only to be killed by her evil stepsister. Three times. Once, when she returns to life as a bird, Tam is eaten.

The stories in this volume are told in a style very similar to the Grimm tales. While the names might not be familiar, the stories will be for some readers. Each story runs about twenty (small) pages with larger print, so the book goes by fast. This is a great companion to any collection of Western tales for readers looking to broaden their fairy tale perspectives.

I found The Brocaded Slipper difficult to deal with for a lot of reasons. While I like fairy tales it has become increasingly more difficult to purely enjoy them. Reading from an English major’s perspective the stories feel simplified. From a feminist perspective they are often chauvinistic and support gender stereotypes. They can be scary and violent and even gory. Often they’re just plain weird.

And yet, the main thing I got from this collection was a question: How did we get from Cinderella being eaten to a world of happily ever after?