The Butterfly Circus by Francesca Armour-Chelu

Francesca Armour-Chelu has created a wonderful tribute to memory, sisterhood and courage in her latest novel, The Butterfly Circus.

It has such an evocative immersion in the life and family (good times and bad times) of circus but with a twist of magic but also in the importance and value of memories both treasured and feared.

If you liked the sister quest element of Frozen, love the circus of The Greatest Showman, or have a nostalgic love for Mr Galliano’s Circus then the Butterfly Circus is one you should check out.

Book cover for The Butterfly Circus
Illustration by Studio Helen

Tansy of the palest skin and flaming hair used to shine in The Butterfly Circus, until she pushed her luck with an unrehearsed trick and fell, smashing bones and courage. She has never performed in the last 3 years, the troupe of Circus performers who rescued her and her sister Belle as infants abandoned in the forest make her sister the star and give Tansy a smattering of different tasks to be useful now she can now longer fly on the trapeze.

But something has changed, in Belle and in Tansy and now Belle vanished into thin air mid-performance leaves Tansy bereft and determined to find the truth; has her sister abandoned her for a better job or has something more disturbing occurred.

Travelling to Sanctuary the highlight of the Island of Gala, Tansy discovers secrets about herself, her sister, others but especially the fact her shadow has detached itself and started to talk…

Monsters can be just four short words; they don’t always wait until nightfall to come out. They can stand right behind you in broad daylight, breathing down your neck all day long.

This is a very special book about courage; the courage to do the things that scare us whether physically, emotionally or mentally.

These forms and reasons for courage are explored across the novel with Tansy’s mindset blossoming to the truth that we need to take courage as we grow up; to release of tensions and prejudices between each other; and facing the demons within that paralyse the ability to feel, act or in this case perform.

The novel explores amongst other things what one would do for family, including uprooting everything you know and having the strength to do the things that challenge you.

In this way it’s a fantastic coming of age middle grade novel where Tansy moves from being frozen in childhood fear to embracing her fears and realising that everyone has these doubts and fears too and that the lesson is the importance of being brave enough to carry on.

Belle says I’m remarkable and I love the colour of my skin, the constellation of freckles across my forehead and forget-me-not eyes.the only thing I get fed up with is not being able to be in the sun much and losing my glasses all the time. But I hate moments like this when people stare

Tansy is a beautifully crafted character, skin as white as snow, constellations of freckles and hair like burning torchlight. To see a deliberately red headed and super pale protagonist is very different and I’m glad that there is such a little heroine in this form, even if some characters want her to display as a freak which thankfully in the book makes clear it talks more to prejudices than to Tansy and her worth.

Furthermore I adore the fact that she wears glasses! So many children are ashamed of their glasses sadly because there is still teasing or anything different from ‘able’.

The role of perception is echoed in the hidden meanings of Tansy’s name, a little name for a common ‘weed’ with blazing yellow flowers that is often unwanted and is known for being bitter as indeed Tansy has sadness maybe even a resentment to her sister for not being able to fly any longer, and feels like a nobody at the Circus. However, the tansy flower has hidden strengths, it is a survivor, and has a multitude of herbal values.

The protagonist being seen as unwanted and both physically and emotionally weak due to injury, self esteem and wearing glasses yet turning out to be the strongest and bravest of all is a wonderful way to show that any child reader can find those reserves in themselves too and that it is the content of your character & determination that matters not the way the world perceives you.

the Circus ring gleams silver. the sawdust is mixed with mother of Pearl shavings to make it glow in the dark

Depictions of the circus are beautifully done with a mind to both the spectacular and the mundane, explaining things such as the purpose of clown acts and the behind the scenes hive of activity that keeps a circus running. Armour-Chelu doesn’t shy away from exploring the less shiny sides of things from ‘earning your place’ to poaching of talent and sadly the less professional and more questionable ‘sideshows’.

With Specialist vocabulary- such as corde-lisse being named and defined above the chapter heading this book not only enriches reader vocabulary but sets the tone for the events, references or emotions to each chapter.

However, the love of performing and the family of the circus is at the centre of the book, the desperate quest to restore to the Butterfly Circus as Tansy realises the kindness that was shown to them by people desperately trying to support a living for all the members of the circus when people from the mainland are increasingly less willing to part with their cash.

she reaches up and lifts its shadow down and hooks it over her head. Against her it instantly disappears from view but she must be shaking it, because I can see teardrops of light sprinkling out across where her heart should be, just a little fainter than the real GlowBell

The magical aspects of the narrative occur when Tansy’s shadow Rosa comes to life in a Peter Panesque moment with a rip and separation creating a partner to help her when frightened and alone, but also is a source of hidden and forgotten memories of a lost childhood and someone to care for in the way she has been cared for by her sister.

Rosa is the catalyst for the reveal of memories across the course of the novel and indeed the constant value and role of memories and perception of memories rises again and again even in Rosa’s name recalling the pink rose around their childhood door as Belle points out about her sister’s childhood imaginary friend with a is she or isn’t she real throughout the entire narrative… no spoilers.

In fact the whole story is deeply about the love and care between sisters. The story explores the difficulties of perception in memory where the maturation of both Tansy and the relationship leads to the realisation of many truths including how much Belle had to give up when she became both a sister and a mother to her, being a fierce mama bear when she was still a terrified child herself.

A tender and heartfelt empowerment tale that helps children to challenge their fears and question any for misconceptions and be brave- a gentle approach to ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’ for children; and what a wonderful exciting journey along the way.

The Butterfly Circus by Francesca Armour-Chelu is published by Walker Books. Thank you so much to Francesca and Walker Books for sending me a copy to review, this has not affected my opinion.

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3 thoughts on “The Butterfly Circus by Francesca Armour-Chelu

  1. I still can’t decide about this one. I think if I didn’t have a toppling tbr stack already I’d give it a go, as it is it would probably just languish so…but I’m still intrigued so maybe one day!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think this is a keep in the back of the mind one for you. Great to recommend for wannabe Zendayas who are loving circus tales, or for prescribing to warring sisters (tween-teen) to remember to love each other.
      But then again you may love it. It’s got some grit about the sideshows but ultimately is about hope and courage and finding the strength inside!

      Liked by 1 person

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