Red Butterfly: How a Princess Smuggled the Secret of Silk Out of China

Overview

An enchanting tale of hidden beauty and fierce courage, retold in the style of T’ang Dynasty poetry and illustrated with charm and grace

A young Chinese princess is sent from her father’s kingdom to marry the king of a far-off land. She must leave behind her home of splendors: sour plums and pink peach petals and — most precious and secret of all — the small silkworm. She begs her father to let her stay, but he insists that she go and fulfill her destiny as the queen of Khotan. ...

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Overview

An enchanting tale of hidden beauty and fierce courage, retold in the style of T’ang Dynasty poetry and illustrated with charm and grace

A young Chinese princess is sent from her father’s kingdom to marry the king of a far-off land. She must leave behind her home of splendors: sour plums and pink peach petals and — most precious and secret of all — the small silkworm. She begs her father to let her stay, but he insists that she go and fulfill her destiny as the queen of Khotan. Beautifully told and arrestingly illustrated, here is a coming-of-age tale of a brave young princess whose clever plan will go on to live in legend — and will ensure that her cherished home is with her always.

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Editorial Reviews

Elizabeth Ward
In language recalling the poet Li Po, best known to readers of English through Ezra Pound's rendering of "The River Merchant's Wife: A Letter," Noyes tries to imagine what might have driven a heartsick young princess to give up China's precious secret…Sophie Blackall did the pictures, light and bright as butterflies, in Chinese ink and watercolors.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

Ancient sources say silkworms and mulberry seeds left China hidden in the elaborately coiffed hair of a princess. Imagining what might have prompted the princess to reveal the secret of silk production, a crime punishable by death, Noyes (Hana in the Time of the Tulips) writes with exquisite delicacy of Princess Red Butterfly's truncated girlhood: "I am a child with my hair/ yet cut across my forehead,/ but soon I will marry/ the king of far Khotan." Blackall (Ruby's Wish) composes sumptuous portraits of the imperial Chinese court: ladies whisper behind fans, consorts bathe in hot springs, a dressmaker fits the princess for a robe. Her ink-and-wash spreads swirl with flourishes (fluttering silk sashes, curving garden paths and tumbling locks of black hair). Red Butterfly must leave her parents, her little brother-whose grief Blackall paints in quiet brushstrokes-and all the beauty around her: "Good-bye,/ red-crowned crane. / Good-bye,/ sour plums." Noyes understands Red Butterfly's theft as a small but powerful rebellion against loss: "If you must go . . . . from all you know,/ take with you/ some small piece/ of brightness,/ some shining memory . . . " The story ends as Red Butterfly leaves for Khotan, but Blackall gives readers visual clues (the princess's smile, flying silk moths) to suggest that the girl's resilience creates a hopeful future. Ages 6-10. (Nov.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Children's Literature
In the voice of her narrator, a young Chinese princess, Noyes re-imagines the legend of how the secret of making silk was carried by the princess to the kingdom of Khotan and from there through Asia and to Europe. “In my father’s kingdom there are many splendors,” the princess repeats, as she describes in rich detail the life she must reluctantly leave to marry the king of Khotan, and “most valued of all is silk.” After she bids farewell to all, she takes with her “some small piece of brightness, some shining memory,” tiny worms and seeds of the mulberry woven within the black silk of her hair. The gentle phrases with their hints of the exotic occupy relatively minor spaces in the double-page scenes of appealing visions of ornately costumed women in many layers of multicolored, patterned fabrics and sculptured black hair. The ink and watercolor illustrations suggest Chinese paintings, but a Western esthetic overrides the delicacy of the original Chinese works. Blackall includes the “splendors” of the text so the visual tale flows smoothly as the eye is delighted. A note fills in the facts behind the legend. Lift the jacket to see the contrast of the cover beneath. Reviewer: Ken Marantz and Sylvia Marantz
School Library Journal

Gr 3-6
This is an ornate but vague rendering of a Chinese legend. An unnamed princess, who refers to her flowing silk sleeves as her butterfly wings and is shown with a butterfly painted on her forehead or worn as a hair adornment, recounts the splendors of her father's kingdom and her own impending departure from it to marry the king of far-off Khotan. The romantic tale reflects the girl's uncertainty and longing for her own family and home as she is prepared for the arranged marriage. However, plot details get a bit lost in lush descriptions. Blackall's attractive watercolors feature swirling ribbons of red around the princess, and often she is garbed in red, though readers never learn the Chinese use and meaning of the color. The smuggling of the silk-making secret, foretold in the book's subtitle, is related briefly and poetically as the girl's hair is dressed for her bridal journey. "She weaves within, like secrets of the wind, tiny worms spinning their busy home. We hide also the seeds of the mulberry tree. We plant them in the soil of me." An author's note adds a bit of the history of silk and the Silk Road and the legend of how silk making might have entered Khotan. There's no map indicating this faraway locale or any sources of authority for cultural details. As structured, the tale is very thin as folklore but it might appeal to some preadolescent girls.
—Margaret BushCopyright 2006 Reed Business Information.

Kirkus Reviews
Even though she's still "a child with my hair yet cut across my forehead," the Emperor of China's daughter must leave her father's kingdom to marry the king of Khotan, who lives in a far-off desert oasis. The princess sadly recounts everything she will miss about her life at court: pink peach petals, yellow moons, pipa song, sparrows pecking at mud, red-crowned cranes and sour plums. Of the many splendors of her father's kingdom, none is more prized than the secret of the silkworm that feeds on mulberry leaves. To reveal this secret means punishment by death. But according to legend, the little princess is willing to risk all. When she departs for Khotan, her maid has cleverly woven silkworm cocoons and mulberry seeds into her hair so she can carry with her "some small piece of brightness, some shining memory." Written in the style of ancient Chinese poets, the text dwells lovingly on the pleasures of imperial life while splendid ink-and-watercolor illustrations poignantly capture the princess's leave-taking as well as details of palace life in images evocative of Chinese screen paintings. (author's note) (Picture book. 6-10)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780763624002
  • Publisher: Candlewick Press
  • Publication date: 10/9/2007
  • Pages: 32
  • Age range: 6 - 9 Years
  • Product dimensions: 10.25 (w) x 11.69 (h) x 0.39 (d)

Meet the Author

Deborah Noyes is the author of HANA IN THE TIME OF THE TULIPS, illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline, as well as other books for children and adults. She also edited the young adult anthologies GOTHIC! and THE RESTLESS DEAD. Deborah Noyes lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Sophie Blackall is the illustrator of several award-winning picture books, including RUBY'S WISH by Shirin Yim Bridges, MEET WILD BOARS by Meg Rosoff, and the Ivy and Bean books by Annie Barrows. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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