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

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

Deborah Noyes, , illus. by Sophie Blackall. . Candlewick, $16.99 (32pp) ISBN 978-0-7636-2400-2

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.)