Book review: Paper Butterflies

Months and months ago I was kindly given a proof copy of Paper Butterflies by the lovely people manning the Egmont stall at the Federation of Children’s Book Groups conference but I’ve only just read it after seeing Emily Thomas and Emily Finn from Egmont who told me I must read it IMMEDIATELY. It’s brilliant and you must read it ASAP.


Paper Butterflies is Lisa Heathfield’s second novel (I read and reviewed her debut Seed earlier this year) and is dark, gripping and completely terrifying. I loved it.

June’s life at home with her stepmother and stepsister is a dark one – and a secret one. Not even her father knows about it. She’s trapped like a butterfly in a net.

But then she meets Blister, a boy in the woods. And in him, June recognises the tiniest glimmer of hope that perhaps she can find a way to fly far, far away from home and be free.

Because every creature in this world deserves their freedom . . . but at what price?

Paper Butterflies follows June, a young black girl who lives with her dad, stepmother Kathleen and stepsister Megan, all of whom are white. Since June’s mother died she has lived with her dad’s new wife who physically, verbally and emotionally abuses her for looking different and for not having a mum. This abuse continues at school where she is tormented and bullied by other students, including her stepsister. The story starts when June is 10 and each chapter dives into a significant moment in her life. From being force fed chocolate cake on her birthday until she’s sick to meeting Blister, a friend who gives her hope and comfort, every moment in this book is powerful and important.

Lisa’s writing is so completely emotive and her descriptions are like nothing that I’ve read before which was helped by the research that was involved in the writing process:
I found the whole story difficult to write as June was so real to me and it was awful seeing her treated like that. Much of June’s abuse finds its roots in things I’ve heard, or seen on tele over the years. Kathleen forcing June to drink and not letting her use the loo comes from a friend of mine who was bullied at school for supposedly smelling of wee. The cruelty of those friends has stayed with her forever. In the first few drafts, the ice cubes forced down June’s throat was a frozen spoon – this was lifted from a horrific tale of abuse I’d read about in the papers a few years ago.” 

I think the reason that I found Paper Butterflies so readable is that I never lost hope for June. Even at the darkest moments in the novel I never felt that her chance of freedom was out of reach and it’s that hope that kept me hooked. No one wants to read a book detailing a child’s physical and emotional abuse and yet I couldn’t stop reading. I also loved that the chapters flipped between ‘Before’ and ‘After’ because without knowing what ‘After’ was, I was intrigued and desperate to read on and find out.

Despite being a compelling read, Paper Butterflies is certainly not an easy read. It’s pacy and exhilarating but so often my heart was pounding with fear. Lisa manages to write in a style that so closely mimics the way that Kathleen abuses June: I never saw the abuse coming and I felt silly for believing Kathleen’s kindness. I also felt suffocated and like I couldn’t breathe when I was reading which really helped to immerse me in June’s story. I’d compare Paper Butterflies to Asking For It by Louise O’Neill because both stories explore abuse in a dark and realistic way.

I loved Paper Butterflies and think it’s an important book that all YA fans should read. There aren’t many stories that talk as openly and powerfully about abuse as Paper Butterflies does and yet it doesn’t strike me as an ‘issues’ book. The story is exciting and interesting and you don’t have to know anything about abuse to become completely engrossed in it. I really hope this is nominated for The YA Book Prize as it’s amazing and I would love to see it get huge recognition.


A massive thank you to Lisa for answering my question about the book. Mostly the questions that I had called for very spoilery answers so I’ll be posting the Q&A in a separate blog post linked here: