Last week Siobhán Parkinson, our Children’s Laureate, took part in a panel discussion as part of Dublin Writer’s Week. The discussion asked the question: What makes a great children’s book? Each member of the panel (which included Padraic White, Kim Harte and Anna Carey) were allowed to pick three books which they felt answered this question. Siobhán chose A Monster Calls (Patrick Ness), Thin Ice (Mikael Engstrom) and …. The Butterfly Heart, by me. This filled me with delight – Siobhán became Children’s Laureate for many reasons, not least of which is her own astonishing writing for children – so this kind of praise from her means a lot to me.
This is what she had to say about my book:
I like this book very very much. It’s called The Butterfly Heart, it is by Paula Leyden and it is set in Africa, in Zambia. The title comes from the idea that Zambia is shaped like a butterfly and is in the heart of Africa. I looked at the map and it does look a bit like a butterfly, but it is not in the HEART of Africa, let’s face it, it is probably around the knee joint!
But the book is wonderful.
You know how people are drawn to certain places and a lot of people are drawn to Africa. I’m not in fact particularly drawn to Africa but after reading this I might just go to Zambia. It is the most wonderful evocation of place that I think I’ve ever read in a book, and it is a very loving evocation.
There are several voices in the book and the voices are absolutely authentic. As I said earlier I think it is voice that is more important than anything. I am going to say now something that might be regarded as controversial, but I think voice is more important than story. It’s a bit of a sacred cow, this thing about story, and everyone is always talking about story, story, story. Of course there has to be a story, but the voice is the most important thing in a book, in my view. It’s what draws you in. The story makes you turn the pages, the narrative suspense makes you want to go on, but it is really the voice that remains with you after you close the book. And that’s why I love this book. What I love are the voices of these wonderful African children, these children of all kinds of mixed backgrounds living in Africa. And there is an adult voice too, that of the mysterious snakeman, Ifwafwa.
There is a story here as well, and there is even a theme: it is about a particular issue, which is child marriage. The issue is extremely well handled, very subtly dealt with. But what you bring away from this book is not just a sense of that issue of child marriage. What you bring away from it is this wonderful sense of place and these fantastic voices that carry on living in your head long after you’ve closed the book. In the same way as the voice of Nesbit’s Oswald Bastable (whom we quoted earlier) is with you many years later.
Laureate na nÓg