Sweet Sixteener Gail Shepherd recently spoke to Fearless Fifteener A.L. Sonnichsen about her MG contemporary novel-in-verse debut, RED BUTTERFLY (February 3, 2015 from Simon & Schuster BFYR).
Raised in Hong Kong, A.L. Sonnichsen grew up attending British school and riding double decker buses. As an adult, she spent eight years in Mainland China where she learned that not all baozi is created equal. She also learned some Mandarin, which doesn’t do her much good in the small Eastern Washington town where she now lives with her rather large family.
A young orphaned girl in modern-day China discovers the meaning of family in this inspiring story told in verse, in the tradition of INSIDE OUT AND BACK AGAIN and SOLD.
Kara never met her birth mother. Abandoned as an infant, she was taken in by an American woman living in China. Now eleven, Kara spends most of her time in their apartment, wondering why she and Mama cannot leave the city of Tianjin and go live with Daddy in Montana. Mama tells Kara to be content with what she has…but what if Kara secretly wants more?
Told in lyrical, moving verse, RED BUTTERFLY is the story of a girl learning to trust her own voice, discovering that love and family are limitless, and finding the wings she needs to reach new heights.
Gail: You grew up as an American in Hong Kong and later worked in mainland China. How did Chinese culture influence your sensibility and style as a writer?
Amy: Hong Kong and China did rub off on me. I have a deep respect and love for Chinese culture, but my biggest takeaway is probably the empathy that growing up in a different culture ingrained in me. I love to examine both sides of situations and people. There are many ways to look at life, and I like to embrace that in the characters and stories I write.
Gail: Why did you decide to set the story of RED BUTTERFLY in verse? How does the verse form influence how you tell a story? What are the challenges specific to writing in verse?
Amy: When I first wrote RED BUTTERFLY, it was a YA novel in prose! A trusted critique partner told me the voice sounded “too young,” so I took the plunge to make it a middle grade novel. That’s when I made the decision to try writing in verse. Some of the themes in the book are tough (abandonment and loss, for instance) so writing in verse provided the lighter touch the subject needed. Also, my main character Kara’s voice seemed clearer once I began writing in verse. The genre suited her personality.
Gail: The image of the RED BUTTERFLY as a metaphor for Kara’s growth is so powerful. How did you come to this image?
Amy: The metaphor developed organically from one poem, “Red Butterfly.” In the prose version I’d toyed with a kite metaphor, but once I wrote the poem comparing Kara to a butterfly, the image stuck and seemed to blossom all on its own.
Gail: A major character in the book is Kara’s much older American sister, Jody, who is at first blithely ignorant of Kara and her mother’s struggles and their poverty when she comes to visit. Where Kara is hyper-reserved, Jody is larger than life, and louder than loud. What does Jody represent about American culture versus Chinese?
Amy: Jody is a stereotype, I admit it! She’s how a lot of Mainland Chinese people stereotype Americans: we’re big, pale skinned people, and no matter what color hair we have, we’re blond. Oh, and we eat too much (and our food is weird!). Yes, Jody also comes across as loud and abrasive, but we see a softer side of her as the book progresses. It can be a positive thing to see yourself through another culture’s eyes, so I hope American readers take the critique graciously.
Gail: You have said that you were inspired to write RED BUTTERFLY by your own experience of working in orphanages in mainland China, where differently abled children were often abandoned due to the one-child policy. You have also adopted a Chinese daughter. Can you talk about the real life experiences that led to this book?
Amy: Kara’s experience was not my own daughter’s experience, I’m relieved to say, but I was inspired by other family’s stories. Also, because we had foster cared for our daughter before we were able to adopt her, I learned a lot about the system. All that went into a big melting pot and came out as something totally fictional with a foundation of truth.
Gail: What’s next for you?
Amy: I am working on two new books. One is a middle grade time travel novel in prose. The second is another verse novel, this one set in 1920s Canton, about a little boy who joins a Cantonese opera troupe.
Lightning Round Questions:
Your book debuts in February! What are you planning?
I’m having a party! If you’re near the Tri-Cities in Washington State, please come! It will be on February 10 (a week after my official release date) at the Richland Public Library, starting at 6:30 p.m.
If you could live and write anywhere in the world other than the US or China, where?
Since Hong Kong was a British colony and I attended British school there for nine years, I’d probably feel pretty comfortable in a small cottage in the English countryside. That sounds lovely and very inspiring, actually! I’d probably have to switch to writing Agatha Christie-type mysteries, though
Last book you couldn’t put down?
THE SCORPIO RACES by Maggie Stiefvater.
Hardest thing you had to learn as a writer?
When to listen to critiques and when to listen to my gut.
If you weren’t a soon to be-famous kid’s author, what would you be?
A gymnastics coach. I’ve become increasingly fascinated by the sport.
Drop yourself back to age fifteen in a time capsule. What’s one fearless thing you would take on that year?
I would smile at the kids in the hallway between classes instead of keeping my head down and trying to blend into the wall.
Share a secret nobody would guess about you?
I hate coffee.
We’re making a movie of your life so far, and we need a five-second montage. What five scenes do we use?
Roller skating with my friends around the podium gardens of our Hong Kong housing estate; wearing my awful school uniform and running to catch a double-decker bus; sitting in front of a laptop chewing my nails (any age); when my husband asked me to marry him at Horsetail Falls; riding my bike in China, loaded down with groceries and children.
What did you really not expect to happen?
I never thought I’d be the mother of FIVE children. Never. Life is full of crazy, unexpected blessings!
About the Interviewer:
Gail Shepherd has been writing anything anybody would pay her for since she could hold a pencil. She’s penned shopping blurbs for AOL, radical feminist literary criticism, crime reporting for Agence France Presse, SPANX catalog copy, award-winning food journalism, and much more. But writing fiction for kids is her favorite avocation by far. Her debut MG novel, SOUTH BY SOUTHEAST (or TBD) (Penguin/Kathy Dawson Books, Spring 2016), follows Lyndie, who as the daughter of a Vietnamese woman and an American soldier feels she doesn’t really belong, either in her small Tennessee town or in her family.