Ever since Gail approached Shealea, Cara, and I about hosting the #ButterflyTour for My Fate According to the Butterfly, I’ve just been super eager to finally get my hands on this book and read it. It’s premise – that of a young girl who gets caught up in Duterte’s drug war – captured both my mind and heart easily. And best of all, it was an internationally published book written by a Filipino author who grew up here, and who still lives here. Not to discount my diaspora Filipino brethren, but really – that kind of representation is irreplaceable.
I’ve sat down many times over the past few weeks to try and write this review, and here I am now: an hour and a half from my deadline, and I’m just getting down to it. A whole host of factors – mostly involving work – contributed to me not being able to get this out sooner; but mostly, it was the fact that I was (and still am, if I’m being 100% honest) kind of at a loss as to how to coherently and cohesively describe just how much I loved this book, and how much it means to me.
Naturally, I will do my best. Gail’s debut deserves nothing less!
Title: My Fate According to the Butterfly
Author: Gail D. Villanueva
Age Range: Middle Grade
Genre: Contemporary, Coming of Age
When superstitious Sab sees a giant black butterfly, an omen of death, she knows that she’s doomed! According to legend, she has one week before her fate catches up with her — on her 11th birthday. With her time running out, all she wants is to celebrate her birthday with her entire family. But her sister, Ate Nadine, stopped speaking to their father one year ago, and Sab doesn’t even know why.
If Sab’s going to get Ate Nadine and their father to reconcile, she’ll have to overcome her fears — of her sister’s anger, of leaving the bubble of her sheltered community, of her upcoming doom — and figure out the cause of their rift.So Sab and her best friend Pepper start spying on Nadine and digging into their family’s past to determine why, exactly, Nadine won’t speak to their father. But Sab’s adventures across Manila reveal truths about her family more difficult — and dangerous — than she ever anticipated.
Was the Butterfly right? Perhaps Sab is doomed after all!
Content warnings: Drug use, discussion of addiction, discussion of colorism, violence
☕ Plot ☕
Superstitions play a big part in most POC cultures, and the Philippines is no different. One of our most prevailing superstitions is all about what it means to see a black butterfly. For some, it’s a good omen: it can represent the souls of departed loved ones, coming to check in on us. For others, it’s a portent of evil, meaning death or disaster. Ten-year-old – soon to be eleven – Sab fears the worst when she sees a big black butterfly. Thinking that her death is coming soon, Sab decides her last wish is to have a big party for her eleventh birthday with all her friends and family in attendance. Only there’s a big spanner in those works, considering her older sister, Ate Nadine, is no longer on speaking terms with her father.
Sab sets out on a mission to discover why exactly her father and her older sister have become estranged, get them to talk to one another again, and have her dream birthday party. While she does end up uncovering some dark family secrets and a political reality no child should have to face, she also discovers a seed of hope and faith planted in the warmth and love of those that care about her.
At its heart, My Fate According to the Butterfly is a book about what it means to be Filipino. There are more than a hundred words I could use to describe the experience of being born and growing up here on the islands: family, sacrifice, loyalty, love, hospitality. Food, even. (Kwek-kwek squad, assemble!) This gem of a book tackles almost all of those themes, set against the awful, sobering backdrop of Duterte’s drug war. This book does an excellent job of painting a pretty accurate picture of what life in the Philippines looks like right now. There is the undeniable quirks and characteristics unique to Filipino culture that will make those in the know laugh, but there is also the stark reality of the regime we currently live under.
This book is by no means a high-risk, action-packed exposé full of big names, car chases, and shootouts. If there’s quiet YA, I’d like to think that this is quiet MG, but by no means is it something to be slept on.
Personally, one of the things I appreciated the most was how the plot was structured. The plot starts off small scale, focusing on Sab’s fears of dying and her determination to make her older sister and her dad reconcile. But as she delves deeper into the secrets her family is hiding, she discovers a lot more about drug addiction, the current political climate, and even things like the colorism prevalent in Filipino society. Such topics, when viewed through a child’s point of view, became even more stark and poignant, and that is the genius of this book.
☕ Writing ☕
I truly believe that Gail D. Villanueva is one of the greatest Filipino writers of this generation. Even before we became friends and I discovered what an amazingly sociopolitically aware and critical person Gail is (seriously, I could talk to her about current events for hours), I already knew from reading My Fate According to the Butterfly that Gail’s skill in weaving together the ordinary, and subsequently making something extraordinary out of it, is almost unparalleled.
From the get-go, you can tell that this book is an unapologetically Filipino book. Everything about it screams that it is set here, in this country. There are sooooo many moments that Filipinos can relate to: eating kwek-kwek and dirty ice cream, comp shops where you can piso-print or play PC games, birthday parties in resorts on Antipolo or Tanay, and even the less savory things about living in Philippine cities – particularly Manila – such as the wild traffic and the absolutely unbelievable state of our public transportation system.
(That scene where Sab, her sister Nadine, and her friend Pepper end up walking on the tracks because the train broke down? It’s happened to me and several other Filipino book bloggers as well. I’ve walked on train tracks hundreds of feet above a river. I’ve walked on train tracks through a tunnel. Honestly? If you stand in the middle of Manila and throw a rock in a random direction, chances are you’ll hit someone who’s had to walk on the train tracks because the MRT broke down.)
Another thing that I adored about Gail’s writing is how succinctly she managed to condense emotionally difficult and complex concepts into something a ten-year-old girl – and, naturally, the middle grade audience this book is meant for – can understand. I’ve always believed that if you can’t explain a concept to a kid, then you really don’t understand that concept at all. The seriousness of issues such as addiction, mental health, and family transparency are absolutely not downplayed, but they’re also imparted in such a way that younger readers can definitely understand them. It’s a skill not a lot of writers have, but Gail has it in spades.
☕ Characters ☕
Part of what makes this book so successful is how realistic and believable the characters are – not to mention how diverse, even in a book that is already diverse in and of itself. We have some excellent bisexual rep in the form of Sab’s dad who, after separating from his wife (Sab’s mom), ends up with a boyfriend; and some wonderful blended family rep thanks to the fact that Sab’s parents, although separated, remain good friends and how they – and their respective significant others – come together to be parents and guardians to Sab and Nadine.
Speaking of Sab and Nadine, their bond as sisters reminded me so much of me and my siblings. As the eldest daughter of a single parent household, I pretty much helped my mom raise my siblings, so I consider myself somewhat of an authority (pardon the lack of humility) on how to write believable sibling relationships. (By the way, for a great read on siblings in YA, check out Shri’s discussion post here.) While Nadine does generally treat Sab in a motherly way (yelling at her to stay put in a crowded alley, grabbing her hand when crossing the street, splurging on a taxi because Sab doesn’t want to ride public transpo), there are also moments where she’s very clearly the older sister who’s always rolling her eyes and waving away an insufferable younger sister. Their relationship walks the fine line of realistic that perfectly balances older siblings’ protective nature over the younger ones and the age-old belief that younger siblings are annoying af.
Want to know more about this book?
Check out the rest of the participants of #ButterflyTour below!
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Get to know the author!
Gail D. Villanueva is a Filipina author born and based in the Philippines. She’s also a web designer, an entrepreneur, and a graphic artist. She loves pineapple pizza, seafood, and chocolate, but not in a single dish together (eww). Gail and her husband live in the outskirts of Manila with their dogs, ducks, turtles, cats, and one friendly but lonesome chicken.
My Fate According to the Butterfly is her debut novel.