Where Butterflies Fill the Sky

[Calling Caldecott posts this season will begin with the Horn Book Magazine review of the featured book, followed by the post's author's critique.]


Where Butterflies Fill the Sky: A Story of Immigration, Family, and Finding Home
by Zahra Marwan; illus. by the author
Primary    Bloomsbury    48 pp.    g
3/22    978-1-5476-0651-1    $18.99
e-book ed.  978-1-5476-0783-9    $13.29

Sometimes the concept of home is complicated. The author presents her own story of emigrating from Kuwait as a child and making a new life in a new country. Marwan’s Kuwait is a beautiful place “where one hundred butterflies are always in the sky,” her ancestors (represented as a school of fish and two bulls with horns) watch over her, and “my aunties hold me close.” However, because her father lacks Kuwaiti citizenship, the entire family is considered stateless, and “people say we don’t belong here.” They end up migrating from one desert to another — from Kuwait to New Mexico — and despite the sadness of missing family, customs, and a native language, Marwan finds new connections and forges a sense of belonging. New Mexico may not have one hundred butterflies, but it has “new people [who] show me I belong.” Culturally symbolic watercolor and ink illustrations are detailed and playful and combine realism with fantasy, creating a delightful landscape of home that is rooted in the specificity of place and Marwan’s surreal imagination. A lengthy author’s note provides crucial context on the problem of statelessness in Kuwait. A nuanced representation of belonging and citizenship that will ring true for many whose sense of home has never been absolute. JULIE HAKIM AZZAM

From the March/April 2022 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.


In Where Butterflies Fill the Sky, the illustrations perform a heavy lift in conveying abstract concepts and making an emotional connection with the reader. It’s in the illustrations that author-illustrator Marwan develops a nuanced visual language through metaphors for something that is often rendered invisible: the state of being stateless. 

The illustrations develop work with various metaphors for the things that define home, such as one’s ancestors, religious icons, or unique aspects of the land. Often-used metaphors for migration such as butterflies and birds are also abundantly present. The author’s ancestors are represented by a school of fish and by two bulls. 

The ancestors are very present in the illustrations while the author is still in Kuwait. The bulls watch the author while she sleeps, while a school of fish floats in the air around her. When the family moves to New Mexico, the bulls and fish are still present, but are more hidden in the illustrations. The bulls peek up from behind a wall or from a moving box, their horns a tell-tale giveaway of their presence. The fish lurk in the waters. A few fish with stick legs even relax on the water’s edge, making literal the metaphor often used for immigrants, fish out of water. 

Place is central in Marwan’s book, and the illustrations are grounded in the representation of two deserts, Kuwait and New Mexico, and the things that tie these two places together. While they are very different locations with their own distinctive cultures, they are both rendered in sandy, earthy tones, which creates a continuity between the two. Other similarities emerge. One hundred butterflies “are always in the sky” in Kuwait, but New Mexico has one hundred hot air balloons in the sky. Dark purple thistles are abundant in the Kuwaiti illustrations, while New Mexico has dandelion fluff. A complex double-page spread captures the family tumbling in the air like dandelion fluff, from one desert to another. A closer inspection reveals the presence of minarets and the author’s black-clad aunties on one side of the page, while a church and outsized Southwestern plants are found on the other. 

The author’s use of metaphor is oftentimes bold and obvious, but it insists the reader participate in the process of making visual connections and meanings. There many details in the illustrations ask the reader to slow down and spend time looking, making this a book that demands active looking and interpretation from the reader. There are many smaller, even hidden metaphors, which will prompt readers to examine the illustrations to see all that there is to see. (There are plenty of cleverly hidden bulls, fish, balloons, and more that will reward those who take time with the illustrations.) 

 As the book progresses, we start to see more and more unexpected crossovers in the book’s predominant metaphors, as more elements from Kuwait are represented in New Mexico. What was at first out of place in the illustration becomes more at home. Bulls and thistles coexist harmoniously with Christian iconography and the landscape of the American Southwest. On the final page, as the text reads, “I have found a home;” a double-page spread blends elements from both locations harmoniously and depicts the girl learning the English alphabet. (Even still, the girl’s home in New Mexico contains many items on the wall that are Islamic and Gulf in their style, which preserves a sense of their original home.)

I love how the illustrations also play with size and proportion. When the author’s father tells her that “people say we don’t belong here. We have to leave our home,” the spread shows a lounging father inside his home on the left page; both he and the daughter seem close, yet sad. On the right page, the father is crouched inside a giant teapot from which he peeks. Plants like thistles, succulents, and cacti flowers also loom larger than life in the desert landscape of both locations.

Marwan’s illustrations are composed in colors that are soft on the eyes. She added ink and watercolor washes to sketches. Even though certain tones are ubiquitous, there is movement and dimensionality to the neutral palette. 

Home is often defined by family, place, and a sense of belonging. Marwan’s book takes on the difficult task of tackling what happens when some parts of that equation are missing. While American readers will be familiar with the concept of immigration, they may not know that for many countries, including Marwan’s home country of Kuwait, there are no paths toward naturalized citizenship, and that stateless residents of the country live in an in-between state, unable to progress where they are, and forced to leave and restart their lives elsewhere. 

Knowing this will help readers appreciate the tricky work that the illustrations are doing, and the reasons why they rely so heavily on metaphors to convey abstract concepts and difficult emotions associated with the experience of yearning for a home to belong to while being stateless. 

This is a book that I keep coming back to. Each time I read this timeless picture book, I find something new in the illustrations, or make different connections than before.

Julie Hakim Azzam

Calling Caldecott co-author Julie Hakim Azzam is the assistant director of the MFA program in the School of Art at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She holds a PhD in literary and cultrual studies, with a specialization in comparative contemporary postcolonial literature from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and Southeast Asia. Her most recent work focuses on children's literature, stories about immigrants and refugees, and youth coping with disability.

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Adrienne Pettinelli

I love the spread in this book in which the aunties throw Zahra's family across the water to New Mexico. There's this kind of safety and love in the way they're launching the family into their new life, but then also we see the family members falling on the other page, how scared and discombobulated they all look. In one spread, the illustration effectively shows a physical and emotional journey another author could have easily made into an entire book on its own. I also really love the way Marwan does and doesn't use lines in her illustrations. Even though, as Julie notes above, these are highly thought-out compositions, the washes and thin lines give this an almost improvisational feeling that's warm and inviting. This story could have been so stark, I think, in another illustrator's hands.

Posted : Sep 22, 2022 07:28

First Last

I love that spread, too! For me, it's the most powerful one in the book, the one that has stayed with me the longest. Thank you for pointing out the way that Marwan uses lines to give the illustrations an improvisational yet warm feel.

Posted : Sep 22, 2022 07:28



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