N is still insisting on reading the juicy novels on her own, so we’ve been making our way through a wonderful new batch of picture books lately. She loves to draw, as some of you may have noticed, so she takes particular interest in how a book is illustrated, and whether or not the author made the images. She still loves a good story, but she’s also curious about the mechanics of the words and pictures coming together, and how the pictures show us unwritten parts of the story.
We were both intrigued by the pictures in Andrew Larsen’s Bye Bye Butterflies, illustrated by Jacqueline Hudon-Verrelli. The colourful people with their overlarge heads and simple curve smiles are charming, as are the wonky brick buildings and crooked window frames in the background. What I love most is seeing the artist’s hand here — the uneven pencil-crayon strokes and the bits of newsprint that give the pictures a collage-like feel. When I see this kind of work that shows hints of its process, it reminds me of sitting up close at a ballet, and hearing the dancers’ shoes squeak across the floor with each powerful move. It’s as if I’ve been invited in.
We both enjoyed the story too, which tells of a little preschool boy named Charlie, out walking with his dad when he sees a stream of waving hands on the school rooftop. “Bye bye, butterflies!” the children holler, and a cloud of butterflies emerges above them — butterflies of all sizes and colours, lifting off into the sky. Charlie says to his father, “Maybe I could do something like that one day.”
The story jumps ahead a few months, and Charlie is in kindergarten, “doing somersaults in gym and learning to sit still during storytime.” He’s forgotten all about that butterfly moment, until one day in spring a package arrives that says “LIVE CONTENTS, OPEN IMMEDIATELY.”
“Inside the package were tiny jars. Inside the jars was some special goop. And inside the goop were teeny tiny caterpillars.”
And so begins Charlie’s experience of watching the caterpillars transform, seeing them eat the goop, grow big and fuzzy, then dangle upside down and wrap themselves inside their cocoons.
“I wish we could keep the butterflies forever,” one of Charlie’s classmates laments. “I know,” he says, remembering the hands on the rooftop. “But just wait and see!”
The children finally release the butterflies, just as Charlie had witnessed the year before. Larsen provides a beautiful circular ending by placing another little preschooler on the sidewalk below, out walking with his dad and looking up at the waving hands and the liberated butterflies.
It’s a lovely story about metamorphosis, about waiting and observing, about beginnings and endings, and then endings and new beginnings. About feeling “a little happy and a little sad all at once.” And in that way it resonates with both parent and child.
I feel a little like this myself these days, as N grows in all ways, slipping her feet into my rubber boots, which are almost her size. I’ve mentioned before the moment we stood in front of her bookshelf and she said “It’s just that I like to read those kinds of books by myself now,” and how it was heartening and heart-wrenching all at once. So maybe reading is another form of metamorphosis.
N is in Grade 4 now, and they have weekly “lit circles,” where a group of kids who are reading the same novel get together and discuss various aspects of the story. Each week, a child plays a different role in the circle: one person tracks the action in the story and where the scenes change; another makes connections between the story and his own life, or the story and other books he’s read; another quotes key passages or looks up difficult words; and another makes visual interpretations of a favourite scene or character.
How I would love to be a fly on the wall hearing her pontificate about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, or Louis Sachar’s Holes, which she’s reading now. But I can’t be everywhere in her life anymore, nor should I be. Still, I like to think she’s well-prepared for this because of all our years curled up together, reading one story after another.