• Picture Book Snob

How the light gets in

Butterfly Brain by Laura Dockrill and Gwen Millward

"She lives in your head, remembers everything you do; your dreams, she collects, and secrets she keeps too. If you’re afraid, she protects you; holds you when you’re blue. She’s brave when you forget to be; she takes care of you."


Butterfly Brain was originally written as a musical piece commissioned by Wigmore Hall. This is a fascinating, creative and incredibly vivid exploration of grief and trauma, with stunning illustrations throughout. The story stresses the importance of acknowledging, embracing and discussing difficult feelings and experiences, instead of trying to repress them.


Everyone warns Gus to stop leaning back on his chair or he will fall and hurt himself, but he ignores them. Gus always responds with: “I don’t care, I don’t care, I do what I want, SO THERE! And you can’t stop me, MEH, MEH, MEH! I will ALWAYS, ALWAYS lean back on my chair.” Then one day Gus does fall, and his head splits open. His memories, dreams, and imagination, and the butterfly inside his brain that curates these and guides him, all escape.


Gus's mind begins to flood, "like a broken tap that won't stop dripping SPLAT SPLAT SPLAT." Out spilled his dreams and, "out went his feelings, drifting like smoke into the pockets of the ceiling; all he understood, all his knowledge and meaning." While recovering in bed, he receives an unexpected and unusual visitor who tells him; "this is your little friend, this is your light, this is your compass, your guardian, your guide; these are your borrowed wings that nestle by your side. This, Gus, is your very own brain butterfly."

Gus and his butterfly embark on an incredible tour through his lost dreams and memories, collecting them and confronting some of the more frightening ones. There is one incident that is too painful and disturbing for Gus to acknowledge, even with the help of his guide. Gus's denial of this past experience will cause his butterfly to die, unless he can summon the strength and to face it.


The colour palette changes to reflect Gus's mood; darkest during his most difficult moments and bright and colourful when he is feeling positive. The last few pages are predominantly green and golden. This reflects the calm and warm emotions he experiences after making peace with his past and allowing himself to remember his mother.


Reading this, I was reminded of a line from a Leonard Cohen song: "There is a crack in everything, it's how the light gets in." As unfortunate as Gus's accident is, breaking himself physically is what allows him to become restored emotionally. The external fissure represents the internal fractures that were there all along. The opening in his head enables everything he had lost before his injury to return through it. Gus is visibly flooded with light and love in the final pages, instead of the shadows that consume him in earlier parts of the story.


Butterfly Brain also made me think of a quote from Neil Gaiman that states: "A book is a dream that you hold in your hands." It's less of a metaphor and far more literal when applied to this story. The illustrations powerfully evoke a dream-like state and it does feel like you are travelling through someone's subconscious and holding a manifestation of it.

The text rhymes throughout and is often funny. Even when we are exploring challenging aspects of Gus's unconscious, the book remains buoyant and accessible. The black humour and cautionary tone remind me of Roald Dahl and Hilaire Belloc. The release that stomping around freely with memories and "monsters" gives to Gus also recalls Max in Maurice Sendak's Where The Wild Things Are.


When Gus allows himself to run riot among his imagination and dreams, we see a different side of him. When we first meet Gus, “an expert at leaning back in his chair,” he is a rude, obnoxious bully. Gus thought, "it looked cool to make little kids tremor, squish big kids small.” The reader doesn’t know why he behaves this way until Gus begins to understand himself better.


When the butterfly emerges from Gus’s head, the reader is finally able to get inside it, as is Gus. We begin to understand Gus as his own perception and comprehension of himself develops. The book is a complex adventure and journey of discovery for both Gus and its reader.


Gus is a flawed, realistic and compelling character to whom children will relate. Far from perfect, Gus frequently makes mistakes and tells lies. He is even more dishonest with himself. He appears to be frightened of nothing in the outside world, it's the intense emotions and memories inside him that terrify him. He feels “like a pacing tiger trapped, his heart hanging heavily in its cage, like an old potato sack.” His anger is a weapon and a shield.

Gus's intricate inner world is skillfully depicted and narrated by the images in the book as well as the text. Artist Gwen Millward has illustrated several children's books by a variety of prominent authors and Tiger Wild which she wrote herself. Gwen has won many awards including the Booktrust Early Years Award for her artwork for The Bog Baby by Jeanne Willis.


Laura Dockrill is a poet, songwriter, playwright, illustrator and author who has performed at a variety of festivals including Glastonbury. A writer-in-residence at First Story, Laura has written thirteen books for children and an acclaimed memoir for adults called What Have I done? This account of post-partum psychosis was also published this year and Laura says the experience enabled her to approach Butterfly Brain with an added insight.


Laura says Butterfly Brain is "a tale about how magical our brains are. How they are a special treasure chest for our memories, thoughts and emotions. Our imagination, our dreams, our grief. How can things that make us happy also make us sad? How can things that keep us safe also make us scared? Ultimately it is about grief and knowing how to keep somebody alive in the memory they leave with you. They live on within you." 

According to Laura, adults are mistaken when they believe children “can’t cope with big subjects and content when actually they hunt for these matters – to relate to and identify with, for connection and conversation." Butterfly Brain rejoices in the comfort and magic of the mundane, such as “fish fingers, snapping bubble wrap, the cracked pink soap and the squeaky tap” and “robots, seashells and nights in your tent." At the same time, it is honest with children and exposes how, "life can surprise you as quick as a spear, and swap rainbows with storm clouds and happiness with tears.”


Instead of trying to protect young people from some of the grittier aspects of being alive, Butterfly Brain celebrates the beautiful and the ugly, the dark and the light. It encourages children to appreciate and hold on to the things that make them happy and the places they find love. It tells us that there will be sometimes be overwhelming and perplexing experiences and emotions, and it's OK to explore these too.


Suitable for reading to children from the age of five and upwards and for children aged seven and older to read themselves. Watch a video of the story being performed at Wigmore Hall.


Title: Butterfly Brain

Author: Laura Dockrill

Illustrator: Gwen Millward

Publisher: Piccadilly Press

Publication Date: 3rd September 2020

ISBN: 9781848128682