This past Tuesday a varied group of us, from MPhil students to long-standing researchers within the Children’s Literature programme, met together for one of our monthly(ish) book club meetings. This is the second of this term, and as things are getting a bit stressful work-wise, particularly for MPhils who are writing theses and PhD students who are preparing for their upgrade Vivas, we chose a short read for this week’s meeting: Michael Morpurgo’s The Butterfly Lion. For those of you who do not know, the short novel is about a young man who comes across an older woman who tells him the tale of another young boy Bertie who once loved a lion cub, and when they were separated, Bertie spent his life waiting to be reunited with the lion.
For a few of us, myself included, this was our first encounter with Morpurgo’s work. Others had the benefit of having read his entire work, and discussed how this work of his fits into his canon of stories, with his beautiful storytelling abilities and magical realism. There were certain weaknesses that soon came to the surface in our dialogue, such as his lack of character development. However, someone was kindly enough to defend the characters of the book, stating that the relationships are the important ‘characters,’ especially that of the lion cub and Bertie, and that their strength easily displaces the need for characters to be strong on their own.
The frequent use of the lion in children’s literature was brought up; we discussed what made the lion an attractive animal to be used in stories. Perhaps some said it was the fact that as cubs they resembled small, cuddly dogs, others remarked that their use draws upon all of the other lions who have ever graced literature, adding meaning without having to explicitly state it. We all acknowledged the small use of hippos in children’s books. So, if you are an author reading this, please consider the more overlooked animals for your next masterpiece.
The point that Morpurgo often uses male protagonists was also brought up. We talked about the fact that male protagonists do not necessarily deter female readers, though the reverse is often the case for male readers. Apparently, someone read somewhere recently, girls develop empathy earlier than their male counterparts–perhaps this is why they can read about male characters and better empathise with someone different from themselves.
We ended on the note that The Butterfly Lion is not going to disappear from the typical ‘children’s canon.’ It is often used in primary schools, sometimes enjoyed by all the students, other times detested by the students and teacher alike. Parents purchase the book for their children, often because of its association with schools. Thus, with adults’ support, children for several generations may very well have the pleasure of reading of the adventure of Bertie and his beloved lion cub.