Timothy R. Baldwin

Review: i am Elephant, i am Butterfly

i am Elephant, i am Butterfly, is the first book I’ve read by Leslie Tall-Manning.

At first glance, this is a story about a self-deprecating obese girl named Simone. She is then thrust, at her doctor’s recommendation, and her parents’ agreement into a place called Camp Kamama. It is a place for overweight girls to connect with and forgive themselves while learning to be healthy in mind, body, and spirit. A good portion of the narrative is devoted to establishing camp routines and how Simone and the other girls feel about this new home-away-from-home camp setting. In the midst of all this, Simone also finds a mysterious diary hidden in the woods and meets a girl from the adjacent Camp Felina.

Until I got through the preliminaries, I thought this would be a story written for overweight teenage girls. It’s not. Any teenager, but mostly girls, could relate to this story. It’s about stripping away the facade and getting real with yourself and others. It is about finding comradery and friendship in the most unlikely of people. It’s about, at its very core, recovering what was once most precious to the individual.

I also enjoyed the narrative voice. Both in the prose and the dialogue, Simone sounds like an angsty teenage girl who sees the world through the tense of one with a lot of self-doubts. Her observations about the world around her are clever and witty, and she is a character with whom readers will empathize.

Overall, I enjoyed this story. The person and interpersonal conflicts are strong. Simone’s character arc, along with the other major characters, is strong. I think this novel is one school systems should consider as literature to be studied as a part of character education and/or social-emotional wellness. This is because there are a number of points within the story that can make for rich dialogue among small groups of students. The author has also included great study guide questions at the end of the story.

As for plot, structure, character development, craft, etc, I wouldn’t say there are any weaknesses in this story. It is very much appropriate for teenagers. It touches upon dark topics such as cutting, obesity, bulimia, death due to overdose, bullying, and rape. Yet, the presentation of these topics occurs within very organic dialogue between teens. The teens are able to have this dialogue because they’ve learned to listen to each other, and they trust each other.

Here are some of the story’s weaknesses:

The major weakness in this story is it’s set up on establishing camp routines. Chapters 6 through 8 dragged on without anything happening. Though I understand the need to establish camp routines, I thought the adult-speak from Willie, Ms. Diggs, and Jake about everything from calories to fitness, to healthy eating felt preaching. I imagine my current students and past students, ages 13-17, feeling the same way and even commenting on it. But, if they can persevere through these chapters until chapter 10, I think they would enjoy the story as a whole, as I did. Though today’s teens tend to give up on books when they get boring, so this major weakness could be a huge obstacle for teenagers to finishing this story.

Some of the one-star comments on Amazon suggest the story is riddled with offensive stereotypes. I’d say the author did drop the ball a couple of times, but these moments didn’t take me out of the story. That being said, as a middle and high school teacher for thirteen years, I know my own students would be quick to point these moments out and comment on them. Who knows? Maybe it’ll make for an interesting discussion on the point of view being expressed by the narrator.

As for the typos mentioned by some of the one-star reviewers, almost every book you’ll ever read contains a handful. Some of these are bothersome, some are not. But, the story has clearly been professionally line-edited and copy-edited. The only typo that stood out to me was misplaced hanging quotation mark. But that’s it.

Next Steps:

I plan to add this to my classroom library, I think you should consider adding it to your own. You can buy it here.While you’re on Amazon, consider picking up a copy of my book, Camp Lenape, which focus’ on four teens who deal with some very dark stuff while looking for a missing girl. Through it all, though too learn to rely on each other.

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