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Someday My Printz Will Come
Inside Someday My Printz Will Come

Fly, Flutter, Fall?

The Butterfly Clues, Kate Ellison
Egmont Books, February 2012
Reviewed from final copy

This is indeed, just as the back cover promises, a very strong debut.

But I think it’s telling that even the blurbs mention its debut status, because this is a book that might be a solid contender for the Morris, but doesn’t rate for the Printz.

(I should acknowledge that I am making that very broad statement without actually having a list of 2012 debuts to consult, so, you know, sort of pontificating without evidence.)

I’m sure you’re thinking, wow, Karyn, tell us how you REALLY feel.

Here goes.

I read The Butterfly Clues in one fast, fell swoop, and did not at any point find myself regretting this whole blog thing and the way it interferes with my ability to toss a half-read book across the room and happily stick it on the DNF shelf I created on Goodreads.

So yes, it’s good. But good is not great.

Remember that list of criteria to consider? This fails the accuracy test.

I don’t mean that it matters whether there is really a neighborhood called Neverland in Cleveland (a quick Google search indicates there isn’t), nor whether the 96 bus will take you from Lakewood into Neverland. It doesn’t need to be real to seem real, and accuracy is, like beauty, often in the eye of the beholder.

What does matter is that in Neverland, this neighborhood of decrepit houses and strip joints, where runaways congregate and the cops don’t go, Lo is always safe (aside, of course, from the person trying to kill her, but that actually has nothing to do with the neighborhood). Instead, these runaways have art collectives. They outfit her with a costume (and where is Seraphina getting the materials to make her wigs, exactly?). Random people offer to help her at every turn, from the small child dragging the bag of onions at the beginning to the bartender who puts several of the pieces together for her.

Flynt, the love interest, has been living on the street since he was 13, but he seems to have never done drugs, never been involved in any sex trade, has all his teeth and good hygiene, and is generally the most cheerful guy around. Really?

Now, there are these moments when we see the seedy side of things — the drum circle that becomes nightmarish, with the two boys cutting each other in a drug-addled frenzy; the gradually revealed story of Lo’s brother Oren and his drug use — but this isn’t presented as the norm. The norm is happy runaways and helping hands and lots of Christmas lights everywhere. The image of sparkly lights runs throughout, and can you think of a recurrent image more designed to make things seem safe and fun?

And the seedy moments are buried in conveniences and contrivances; the entire place seems to operate in line with Lo’s needs. Witness the helpful strippers and Lo’s ability, physical and verbal tics notwithstanding, to pass herself off as an experienced stripper. I could see how a reader could forgive this (which is one more aspect of the magic of Neverland, and really the name says it all) because it keeps the plot moving, and because Lo is easy to like and cheer for. But as a critic, I can’t give this huge flaw a pass.

It’s unfair to leave it there, though, because there is plenty that works here, too. The mystery is slightly preposterous, but I’ve never met a YA mystery that isn’t; it takes a bit of laborious shoehorning to create a scenario in which a teen is sleuthing around. Lo’s OCD makes her need to solve things make sense within the context of the book, making this a lot less preposterous than many YA mysteries. And while I can’t speak to accuracy of her symptoms, the claustrophobic need to arrange and rearrange left me with a sense of lingering anxiety because being in Lo’s head was real enough for some of that emotional baggage to rub off. Ellison never forgets to reference Lo’s symptoms (tap, tap, tap, banana), and the way the symptoms and thoughts about the objects on which Lo fixates recur constantly in Lo’s narrative brings the reader right into that headspace, discomfort and all.

So… yeah. It has it’s moments, but the flaws are pretty vast. As a result, I’m knocking this off the contender list. Disagree? Have at it!

About Karyn Silverman

Karyn Silverman is the High School Librarian and Educational Technology Department Chair at LREI, Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School (say that ten times fast!). Karyn has served on YALSA’s Quick Picks and Best Books committees and was a member of the 2009 Printz committee. She has reviewed for Kirkus and School Library Journal. She has a lot of opinions about almost everything, as long as all the things are books. Said opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, YALSA or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @InfoWitch or e-mail her at karynsilverman at gmail dot com.


  1. The details you mention here remind me a little of Francesca Lia Block’s books–lots of twinkly lights and magic and kindness, although that’s usually in response to grittier things like sexual assault and nuclear war and homophobia. Like Block’s books, I think a lot of readers will still enjoy The Butterfly Clues (I’m intrigued myself) but it sounds like there’s a layer missing overall.

  2. So, can we compare and contrast with Leah Bobet’s ABOVE? I didn’t think ABOVE was perfect–some self-conscious prettiness and confusion detracted–but I think it dealt really well with homeless kids/teens. ABOVE is also a debut, but maybe also a Printz contender…?

  3. Unlurking for a moment to sigh and wish there were a Morris contender list somewhere. Is there one? I think there’s a killer crop of debuts out there, but I’m sure I’m missing some real stars.

  4. Beth Saxton says:

    I actually couldn’t make it through this one because the Cleveland stuff was so far beyond suspension of disbelief. A teen girl in Lakewood would never go to the East 100s for pretty much any reason ever. Adults don’t even tend to cross the river much and buses run from downtown to the east side or downtown to the west side. Even if Neverland existed it would take her like two hours to go back and forth from Lakewood with at least two, possibly three different buses.

  5. Karyn Silverman says:

    Blythe, I’m right there with you. There must be one out there, no? I did find this list on Goodreads, although I don’t know if it’s accurate: Lots of paranormal romance, plus a few titles that overlap with our list. 250 books is a massive pile of debuts!

    Annie, I agree — Block uses the glitter as a commentary on the grit; her girls twirl in tutus to hide from or defy the darkness. In Butterfly Clues, the darkness never really gets past the lovely low light of afternoon, gilding everything just a bit too much.

  6. Finally got this one read and I have to say I really enjoyed it on a personal reading basis. I like mysteries and I like smart, quirky girl heroines so the premise was appealing and the story held up great for pleasure reading purposes. On a literary front though, not so much. Spoilers ahead!

    The ending did not hold up. The resolution of the mystery was ok, although a little convenient in terms of the rescue. But everything after that. Lo’s father who has clearly never accepted her, let’s call them foibles, suddenly has a complete turn around? Jeremy and Keri end up together because Lo suggested it to Jeremy? In fact, I really think the book would have been stronger if the entire school subplot had been excised. I never felt invested in that because Lo wasn’t invested – the only reason it seemed to be in there was to provide the one red herring attack and to show how alienated Lo feels from her peers. Heck, except for Keri and Jeremy I couldn’t even remember which of the other girls was which.

    I agree that, while I wish Flynt was real, he’s a completely preposterous character. And I couldn’t believe the strippers would all just talk to her about Sapphire and let Lo take her stuff! Seriously? I don’t know any strippers and haven’t been to a strip club ever so I cannot speak from personal experience, but I have friends who have, and from what I understand this is a pretty idealized version of that life – or maybe not idealized so much as glossed over. So maybe I could see the strippers talking to Lo, but I can’t imagine none of them would have protested the removal of Sapphire’s things.

    The amount of coincidences is pretty far-fetched as well – I can see Lo believing that the universe meant for her and Sapphire to connect, but are we supposed to as well? Because I as a reader did not feel setup for that little bit of magical realism/destiny/etc. at all. There’s just too many holes here for it to make the Printz top five.

    I really enjoyed it and will recommend it to others who like mysteries with complex characters. And Lo feels like a living, breathing person I might meet – that’s the real accomplishment to me – bringing to life this complex girl trying to deal with her overwhelming grief at losing her entire family (and this is a very real portrayal of grief in my opinion – you don’t just lose the one person, your entire family has to rebuild itself around the hole and sometimes they can’t and even if they can your relationships never look or feel the same) and caught up in something scary that, because of who she is, she can’t let go. I particularly love how Ellison made us feel how clearly Lo felt the loss of her mother – who had been the person who understood her and helped her cope with her foibles – without hitting us over the head with it, but by showing us concrete differences in Lo’s life – like the meals. Which is amazing, but not enough given this year’s field in particular.

  7. Elizabeth Burns says:

    I just finished this one, and while I agree (esp with hindsight!) that its not a contenda, I loved how Lo’s OCD was simply part of who she was, and also part of what made her investigate the mystery to a degree no one else would. I also liked how it was never quite clear how others saw her: that some classmates may make fun of her but others do not. I wonder how that played into her interactions in Neverland. I did wonder at her almost Teflon-like ability to walk around without risk; and coming back to read your review I had to laugh, because when Lo and Flynt kiss all I could think of was “ok, so he has access to laundry and a shower….”

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