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Review: The Butterfly Clues

The Butterfly Clues by Kate Ellison. Egmont USA. 2012. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: In the year following the death of her brother, Oren, Penelope “Lo” Marin has been looking, searching, for something. She explores far from home, taking buses, going farther and farther away from her safe home and school. “Safe” — safe only in that her mother is a shadow of herself, since Oren died, and her father never comes home from work, and friends, what are they? Lo wouldn’t know. Lo is searching . . .

What Lo finds is a murder. Sapphire, nineteen year old stripper, has been killed, and Lo is drawn to the girl, to finding out who killed her, and she cannot explain why or stop. Just like she cannot stop knocking a certain number of times before entering a room, or having numbers that are good or bad, or collecting / taking items that then need to be set up just so in her room. Sapphire, a girl Lo has never met, is dead, and Lo cannot let it go.

A butterfly charm owned by Sapphire, a street artist named Flynt who may or may not know Sapphire, clues upon clues, as Lo finds out more about Sapphire, her brother, and herself.

The Good: I adore mysteries. Just adore them. The challenge faced by most YA writers is, how to get the teen into the mystery? Especially a murder mystery?

Lo is wandering around Cleveland when shots are fired. She runs, discovering later that she has overheard the murder of Sapphire. This, then, is what starts her obsession with finding out more about Sapphire, finding out who killed her.

Lo is alone and lonely, with several barriers set up between her and her classmates: her father’s job means the family moved frequently; Oren’s death; and Lo’s own obsessive-compulsiveness. I hesitate to label Lo, when The Butterfly Clues is very careful to not use any labels. Certain numbers are good, others are not; Lo has to rap or knock certain sequences when nervous, or when entering a room or a car; she is compelled to take (yes, steal) certain items and collects many things. Her collections have to be in certain numbers, and certain groups, and certain sequences, and those requirements may change. Lo has no choice in doing these things. The Butterfly Clues is a bit vague as to whether Lo’s parents realize the extent of Lo’s compulsions. Her mother is in a fog since Oren’s death; her father seems to believe that Lo can just stop; therapists are mentioned, but did Lo go to them because of Oren’s death or her own problems?

What I love about The Butterfly Clues is that it is not about obsessive- compulsive disorder; it’s about a girl who happens to have it, and whose brother died, and who is now investigating a murder. Her OCD may be part of why she cannot quit the investigation, true; it may be why she pushes herself into risky situations, such as applying for a job at the strip-club where Sapphire worked; but it’s a part of Lo who she is, always, not something to be “fixed” and not the point of the story. At the same time, it is entirely the point of the story because most other people would not have taken the risks Lo ends up taking.

Other great things about The Butterfly Clues: the setting, Cleveland, including both the suburb Lo lives in as well as the gritty city she explores. Lo’s complicated family, from her distraught mother to her brother’s problems to their constant moving. Her deep sense of loss and guilt from Oren’s death. That Lo’s OCD is presented so matter-of-factly, a part of her. The group of artists that Lo meets, including Flynt, who she is both attracted to and afraid of, because what will he think about her compulsions? And what is his connection to Sapphire?

Other reviews: The Book Smugglers; Someday My Printz Will Come; Teen Librarian Toolbox.

About Elizabeth Burns

Looking for a place to talk about young adult books? Pull up a chair, have a cup of tea, and let's chat. I am a New Jersey librarian. My opinions do not reflect those of my employer, SLJ, YALSA, or anyone else. On Twitter I'm @LizB; my email is