Butterfly Brain

Authored by Laura Dockrill
Illustrated by Gwen Millward
Published by Piccadilly Press

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This is a poetic, imaginative and sensitive exploration of our innermost thoughts and emotions told in an original and fresh style accompanied by beautiful illustrations that support and add to the story.  Butterfly Brain is a cautionary tale that evolves into a guide to coping with grief and loss that culminates in words of kindness, hope and comfort.

When the reader first meets Gus, he is an angry little boy; he is always in trouble for this or that but most particularly for leaning back on his chair. Despite the constant reprimands Gus, all sharp angles and dark frowns in the illustrations, persists in his forbidden habit until one day he leans too far, his chair falls, and his head cracks open on the floor. “Blood dotted the floor in a trail of red crumbs and stained the soles of shoes like spat –out chewed gum.” In addition to his blood and gore now spread across the classroom floor out of the crack, Gus also lets loose his memories, dreams and imagination and a beautiful little butterfly guide. This little butterfly is going to help Gus recapture all he has lost, including the memories of his mum that he has hidden deep inside himself for years.

At the beginning of the book this story, told in verse, has the feel of the cautionary tales of Hilaire Belloc as we are quickly made aware through the macabre verse that Gus is doomed to an imminent accident due to his behaviour. Yet this tone changes when the angry child meets his small and kindly guide. Together they recall precious, happy memories of playing, pet hamsters, eating fish fingers, and nights spent in tents. However, Gus still keeps some memories hidden away, and these are coupled with dreams that become nightmares for him. There is a sinister aspect to these dreams as they are triggered by death and loss. The butterfly reminds Gus of the happy dreams for the future and his imagination full of ideas and creative fun. Slowly and gradually, the tense and unhappy boy is able to revisit the sadness he has locked away, but as he does so, he also remembers the happiness and the love.

“Memories go, and memories come, but take along the ones we love, because people return, back and forth, to and fro – but memories stick to you and never let go.”

I was struck by how well the illustrations by Gwen Millward mirror the changing moods within the story and they convey emotion in a manner that touches the reader. Laura Dockrill’s narrative voice is a fresh and youthful sounding one, and although she does not shy away from the darker aspects of grief and loss, this is balanced by the lightness and humour in the happy memories. This would be an excellent book to prompt discussion among older children about the importance of sharing our worries and unhappiness for the benefit of our mental health. Used with care by an understanding adult it may help a child suffering from bereavement and grief to learn how to live with their loss. It is lovely to witness Gus’s gradual emergence from sadness to acceptance and sharing his memories of his beloved Mum with his Dad and Grandma. The final pages are a beautiful and touching reminder that those we have loved and lost live on in our memories.