The Butterfly Shell by Maureen White – Book Review

Book Title: The Butterfly Shell

Author: Maureen White

Genre/Themes: Contemporary Junior YA, Mental Health, Bullying, Self Harm

Blurb from Goodreads

There are some things about me you should know.
1. I always wear my butterfly shell – even when I’m swimming or sleeping
2. I don’t cut myself anymore
3. I believe in ghosts.

It’s the beginning of First Year. Marie loves reading, hates Rachel and her gang, The Secret Six, and isn’t sure how she feels about Stella, who’s more than a little odd.

Between the mean girls tormenting her by day and a ghostly cry waking her at night, Marie’s first year at secondary school is far from what she had expected …

The story of a strange year and a very special shell.

Content Warning

  • Self-harm: not graphically described but deals with the emotions and mental health related issues
  • Bullying

My Review

There are a few things about me you should know. 
1. I always wear my butterfly shell – even when I’m swimming or sleeping 
2. I don’t cut myself anymore
3. I believe in ghosts. 

I was drawn to this book because of the beautiful title. A copy was hidden among all these big chunky books in my library in the adult fiction section and somehow this little slim book jumped out at me. The author was born in Canada but is heavily involved in Irish theatre, and lives and works here. This is her first foray into novel writing (she has written plays) and the book is primarily set here in Dublin (also in Connemara) so that was it. I had to read this! 

The book follows the story of a young Irish girl named Marie as she embarks on her first year in secondary school (second level education).

For those who aren’t familiar with Irish schooling:

  • Approx.* 5 to 12 years old attend primary school
  • Approx.* 13 to 17 years old attend secondary school *(+/-1 year)

Marie is similar to how a lot of us were at this age: unsure of herself, lacking in confidence, wanting to make friends, wanting to be like everyone else rather than being happy in her own skin. 

I found the writing style to be very simplistic and easy to read, yet incredibly claustrophobic.

I mean that in a good way!

You could really feel how Marie was being smothered by all these changes in her life and how she was struggling to stay afloat. In many contemporary YA novels the main character can sometimes be interpreted as being very whiny or self-centred due to poor writing, instead of being someone that the reader can have sympathy for or identify with. The protagonist here did not once sound whiny and instead her anxieties, doubts, and insecurities were written in a very authentic and empathetic fashion. That’s a refreshing change for a YA book that deals with typical school-going problems.

And yes there were the expected mean girls in Marie’s school, (and I found them to be incredibly annoying), but for once they felt realistic; their actions were quite juvenile and therefore very honest to the ages they were portrayed to be. Teenagers ACTUALLY acting like teenagers for once!! Who knew that could happen in YA literature????

One of my early problems with this book was that everything was dealt with almost superficially. Supporting characters such as Marie’s parents and Marie’s classmate Stella were very one-dimensional. We never really scratched the surface and saw what it was that ‘made them tick’. However, as I continued reading, this bothered me less and less as I began to fully appreciate that this is definitely a YA aimed at the younger end of the YA spectrum. 

What was quite surprising about this book was that when reading there were many times that I was transported back to my own early secondary school days: the book felt very grounded in spite of the eerie ghost aspect of the story! So maybe despite the fact that Marie’s parents, Stella and the mean girls are all a bit one-dimensional maybe that’s kind of the way you are when at that age? That sounds bad but what I mean is that when I was 13 or 14 I very much internalised everything and felt that I was the only person who has ever experienced all that it was I was experiencing (young teens can have a very internal view of the world just because they don’t yet have much life experience imo).

One thing that I noticed was how the protagonist couldn’t talk to her parents; she was afraid of worrying them, of letting them down, of not understanding them, of them not understanding her…

And admittedly her parents are quirky but it did make me think that it’s so important to have someone you can confide in when you are a young child on the cusp of adult hood/adolescence.

So for even that reason alone I would recommend this book to be read by children in sixth class through to 2nd year (approximately 12 years old through to 14 and perhaps even as young as 11 depending on the child) as it would get them talking.

Anything that encourages communication between children or teenagers and their parents or other person in a position of responsibility is a good thing in my opinion.

And to note, this book deals with self-harming but it never really delves deep into the act. It’s not graphically described etc and focuses more on the mental health aspect and therefore makes this suitable for the younger reader who would be uncomfortable with graphic imagery.

The story has a slight paranormal twist to it which just adds to the overall atmosphere of the book. It might be a little on the far-fetched side but it is a plot line that imbues extra heart to the story. It also adds to the feelings of anxiety felt by Marie in that it is almost used as a metaphor for her problems. 

Overall I enjoyed this book. I read it extremely quickly in one sitting but for the whole time I was reading it my mind was fully taken over with the plight of Marie.

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