Magical and colourful, this book is a celebration of difference

Butterfly Kisses and Turtle Tears by Prashan Thalayasingham. Perera and Hussein Publishers, 2008. Price: Rs 350. 66 pages.
Reviewed by: Vivimarie VanderPoorten

“Butterfly Kisses and Turtle Tears” is the story of two unlikely friends, written by Prashan Thalayasingham. The book starts with the chance encounter of Tao, a turtle and Leah, a butterfly, as the newly-born Tao makes his way into the sea. Both Tao and Leah cannot forget this meeting and so they decide they would try somehow to see each other again.

This meeting unlike the first encounter does not happen by chance but is born of determination. Tao loses his way in a forest of seaweed and then is tossed around by a storm but holds on to his intention of meeting his ‘angel’ Leah. Leah for her part has seen Tao move out into the sea and although she knows the sea is no place for a butterfly, she too pursues her dream of finding him again and builds up her powers of endurance so that she could fly out far from land.

And meet they do- and then proceed to have a series of adventures which includes befriending others such as Luna, a moth and Mena, a hermit crab. Through Luna and Mena, Leah and Tao who from the start have been fascinated by the differences between their own two lives, realize that there are more friendships to explore, more ways of living to discover.

In creating the world of Tao and Leah, Prashan has created for us a delightful world of wind and wave. The author seems to have the ability to move into the thoughts of the two little animals, of one as he finds his way through the sea, the medium to which he was born and of the other as she decides to venture where no butterfly has been before. What marks Prashan’s achievement is the fact that he does not falsify the characters nor make the mistake of giving them extraordinary powers and the only ‘magical’ element in the book is that turtles and butterflies talk.

Tao’s journey back to the shore to meet Leah is rooted in his innate ability as a turtle. Tao “..enjoyed the sea. He knew inside himself many things about it.” But “ Even with all the new sights and sounds and tastes of his world, Tao still thought about his angel..” Leah “remembered hearing from other butterflies how it was better to stay in the trees” but is torn between the safety of the known environment and the lure of the unknown. “She spent many days in the safe spaces spoken of by other butterflies but was always drawn further and further away to the shiny blue sea…” The story thus rooted in reality draws us into the worlds of these two friends and their determination to see each other again, and as Tao and Leah meet with misadventure, we hold our breath, willing them to emerge unscathed.

The adventures that the two friends face are charmingly depicted and ring true because they are presented not from an omniscient adult point of view but as the thoughts and reactions of Tao and Leah. The storm at sea for instance is seen first through Tao’s eyes- “ He was a little bit surprised when he heard the first claps of thunder. Especially one huge bang that made everything shake. He dived back under the water. The surface of the sea was rough and he was getting tossed around. It was calmer further down, and he watched the sea move and shake and storm above him from the shelter of some corals. He felt the power of the waves far down below and was glad he was not on the surface.” And then through Leah’s – “The sea was rough and Leah could see the huge white waves crashing into the sand on the beach. It sounded as loud as the thunder. Leah couldn’t sleep… She thought about Tao and hoped he was ok. The sea was so wild and rough and he was so very little.”

This constant shifting of perspectives adds to the power of the story, providing insights yet creating new tensions for as we shift to one character, our thoughts still remain with the other. And we read with sympathy Tao’s struggle with the obstacles that the sea throws in his way and Leah’s endeavours to master long-distance flights over a tree-less sea.

Realistically and perhaps a trifle surprisingly, the story does not end when the two friends meet again but takes another turn as they now begin adventures together. Yet another twist is added when the two friends meet other strangers- Luna and Mena-who in turn become friends.

Prashan Thalayasingham is to be congratulated for writing a story for Sri Lankan children which echoes the achievement of great children’s classics. On the surface, a story of the adventures of a turtle and a butterfly, “Butterfly Kisses and Turtle Tears” is in fact a gentle parable for it is ultimately a story of friendship and a celebration of difference. It reflects the view that our friends need not necessarily be the same as us-they may not look like us or lead lives that are the same as ours but inhabit other contexts, other worlds. Yet what holds friends together is affection and concern. This truth is embodied in a story set in a world that is wholly believable yet magical and colourful.

Part of the significance of this story is that it does teach a lesson –as is often expected in literature for children – but the author manages to achieve it without appearing preachy or moralistic, and with tremendous empathy for his characters as well as his young audience. The skilful use of simple, conversational language makes the book extremely readable and the truth that it explores is expressed as lightly as a butterfly’s kiss. As we mark the fourth anniversary of the Asian Tsunami this book resonates with the positive (but realistic) rather than dwelling on terrifying images of the sea, which must surely still remain even in the memories of children.

With its attractive cover, relatively short chapters, whimsical chapter titles and little drawings, it would make an appropriate gift for a child perhaps in the age range 8- 10 who would be able to appreciate an adventure story with a difference.

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