cover image The Butterfly Lion

The Butterfly Lion

Michael Morpurgo. Viking Children's Books, $14.99 (96pp) ISBN 978-0-670-87461-3

Winner of a Smarties Gold Medal, Morpurgo's (The Wreck of the Zanzibar) cozy, well-executed British novel may not survive the jump across the ocean--the climax depends on a casual reference likely to be lost on American readers. The story, about a boy who gives his white lion immortality, moves gracefully through frequent switches from past to present, from first to third person, from the English countryside to pre-WWI South Africa. A boy runs away from his strict boarding school (""It was a diet of Latin and stew and rugby and detentions... and chilblains... and semolina pudding""), only to meet an old woman who invites him in for tea. There, fed delicious scones, he looks out the window upon the hillside to see a huge shape of a lion, switching from white to blue. How did it come to be there? The old woman tells him the remarkable story of Bertie, who as a boy found a white lion in Africa and was later obliged to give him to a European circus. Magic enters the novel at an appropriate moment, and the conclusion is sweet. But unless readers can picture ""the famous White Horse on the hillside at Uffington"" (an enormous, ancient image carved into chalky ground), they will have difficulty imagining an adult Bertie and his wife carving out a similar picture of the white lion or of blue butterflies alighting on it en masse to ""drink on the chalk face""--concepts critical to the book's conclusion. Ages 8-12. (May)