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.
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!