Review of Butterfly Yellow

Butterfly Yellow
by Thanhhà Lai
Middle School, High School    Harper/HarperCollins    296 pp.    g
9/19    978-0-06-222921-2    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-0-06-222923-6    $9.99

During the 1975 fall of Saigon, twelve-year-old Hang determines that she and her younger brother, Linh, should escape to America. They attempt to impersonate orphans to join Operation Babylift, but the refugee workers reject Hang, taking five-year-old Linh and leaving her behind, with only the address of his destination in Texas. For six years she plans to join him, and, after enduring a harrowing and horrific boat trip (revealed in tense flashbacks), Hang arrives in Texas. She has one goal: to find her brother. Upon arrival she meets rodeo-star wannabe LeeRoy, who grudgingly agrees to take her to Linh, now a thoroughly Americanized boy called David, with no memory of Hang and no interest in reuniting. One strength of the novel is the subtle character development as both LeeRoy and Hang grow naturally from single-issue actors to individuals who recognize and respond to the complexities of both themselves and those around them. Another is Lai’s use of language. When Hang speaks in English, Lai represents her words phonetically, forcing the reader to become both listener and decipherer, an equally engaged but sometimes frustrated partner in her quest for “mai bo-ró-do [my brother].” Initially Hang’s limited English isolates her, but as she becomes more proficient in the language, she expands her outlook and her circle of friends. As a sympathetic acquaintance says: “She’s got a story, that’s for sure, and I for one aim to hear it.” Those who do hear her remarkable tale can additionally think about contemporary connections to immigrant experiences, feelings of being an outsider, and the detours one’s life may take.

From the September/October 2019 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Betty Carter
Betty Carter, an independent consultant, is professor emerita of children’s and young adult literature at Texas Woman’s University.

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