Of all my anticipated reads of 2019, Gail D. Villanueva’s My Fate According to the Butterfly was at the very top of the list. A story set in contemporary Philippines – in the midst of Duterte’s drug war, no less – and written by a Filipino author? I didn’t just want this middle grade book, I needed it.
Before I get to my book review and the author interview, let me just first say how important My Fate According to the Butterfly is to young Filipino readers. Not only is seeing a Filipino writer (based in the Philippines) thrive in the international publishing scene incredibly inspiring, learning about the drug war through the innocent and empathic lens of a child can really help young readers make sense of the relentless (and oftentimes violent) situation in our country.
One of the biggest hurdles drug addicts face is the constant vilification by the general public. Drug addicts are seen as “bad” people that need to be punished so the government’s mistreatment of them is justified by most people to a degree. To some, there’s almost no room for sympathy when it comes to victims of drug abuse. And this lack of compassion or empathy just keeps the terrible cycle going.
That’s why My Fate According to the Butterfly is such an important read for kids. I’d even go so far as to recommend it as required reading in schools. This book sheds some light on the realities of the drug war. It’s not as black and white as so many people want to believe. Drug addicts can recover when they are given the opportunity and the resources. Unfortunately, only a very small percentage of drug addicts even come close to rehabilitation.
But anyway, I’m already getting ahead of myself. On to the review!
Title: My Fate According to the Butterfly
Author: Gail D. Villanueva
Genre: Middle Grade, Contemporary, Coming of Age
Publication: Scholastic Press, 30 July 2019
Links: GoodReads | Amazon | Book Depository
When superstitious Sab sees a giant black butterfly, an omen of death, she knows that she’s doomed! According to legend, she has one week before her fate catches up with her — on her 11th birthday. With her time running out, all she wants is to celebrate her birthday with her entire family. But her sister, Ate Nadine, stopped speaking to their father one year ago, and Sab doesn’t even know why.
If Sab’s going to get Ate Nadine and their father to reconcile, she’ll have to overcome her fears — of her sister’s anger, of leaving the bubble of her sheltered community, of her upcoming doom — and figure out the cause of their rift.
So Sab and her best friend Pepper start spying on Nadine and digging into their family’s past to determine why, exactly, Nadine won’t speak to their father. But Sab’s adventures across Manila reveal truths about her family more difficult — and dangerous — than she ever anticipated.
Was the Butterfly right? Perhaps Sab is doomed after all!
Disclaimer: I received an e-ARC of My Fate According to the Butterfly in exchange for an honest review. Thank you to Gail Villanueva and Scholastic for this honor!
This book is an absolute gem. I loved every second of it. I almost regret reading it too quickly because I wanted to savour the experience. But, being the impatient fool that I am, I gobbled up this charming novel in less than a day.
Primarily, this is a book about Sab and her desperate attempts to get fix the family rift before her supposed death. There’s something endearingly morbid about Sab’s certainty of the black butterfly’s omen but her reaction to it is also really wholesome, in a way that only children can express.
The writing was easy to get into and the characters were fully fleshed out. This may have been a short book but it tells a compelling coming-of-age story about family, superstition, and the real effects of the country’s war on drugs.
I’m so excited for young Filipino readers to see themselves represented in this book.
Life (and Death) According to a Ten-Year-Old
Sab was undoubtedly what made this book so enchanting. She’s a precocious little kid who may not always have the best plans but her heart is in the right place.
Sab’s firm belief on the superstition that a black butterfly means certain death was amusing yet at the same time very relatable. In the Philippines, superstitions are not taken lightly. Sure, most people may not go out of their way to follow certain superstitions anymore but those beliefs that our elders passed on to us are always at the back of our heads. I mean, I’d know I’d probably be on pins and needles if I ever come face to face with a black butterfly. Sure, it might just be an old superstition… but what if?
It really was funny how quickly Sab accepted her fate. She very nearly wrote a last will and testament (but didn’t because she didn’t really have anything of special value to leave behind 🤣). I was reminded of how seriously kids can take these types of things and it’s really touching that she devoted her supposed last week on earth to helping solve the problem in her family.
Young readers no doubt know the feeling of being purposely left out of family discussions so I’m sure they’ll find Sab’s sleuthing on her own family exciting. And with Sab’s lovable personality, who can help but root for her?
The bulk of this book has Sab doing things she normally wouldn’t have the nerve to do. Sab lives a sheltered life and has only the vaguest idea what the real world is like so when she experiences the trials and tribulations ordinary people in busy Manila, she is shocked at how difficult seemingly simple things like riding a train is.
As a pretty sheltered child myself, I could relate to Sab’s alarm upon seeing just how gruelling public transportation is as well as her fear of menacing-looking strangers. When you live in a comfortable environment where you know almost everyone and don’t have to worry about being troubled, you have a lot to learn when in the big city.
I really appreciated the care and attention given to Sab slowly learning about her privilege. After all, Sab is from a considerably well off family. Her father owns a resort while her mother is a successful businesswoman – money isn’t an immediate problem for her family. Furthermore, Sab’s step-father is a policeman so her family is guaranteed preferential treatment if ever they need help from the authorities. Sab starts the book not realizing that she is surrounded by privilege and when she is faced with the reality of the majority – those without privilege of a well off family and connections – she learns just how fortunate she is. Moreover, she becomes aware of her advantages in life and learns to be more empathetic to others.
This is a good lesson young readers can learn, especially the sheltered ones. Privilege is an undeniable factor in our society. While having all these advantages doesn’t make invalidate your struggles or make you a bad person, it does come with the obligation to help the underprivileged. This book explores the topic really well and I commend Gail Villanueva for it.
“Change Is Coming” (But not necessarily the positive kind)
Finally I want to briefly talk about how My Fate According to the Butterfly handled the complex and sensitive topic of drug abuse and the war on drugs. I already wrote a whole essay at the beginning of this post so I’ll make this one quick.
I don’t think my parents ever really explained anything to me about drug abuse so I had to rely on TV and movies. However, the media that I consumed while growing up almost always showed drug addicts as criminals or immoral people. Growing up with a severe lack of a nuanced understanding on my country’s most prevalent problem is probably the reason why it took me so long to unlearn the idea that people who abused drugs had only themselves to blame for their misfortune. Unfortunately, a lot of people still uphold this mentality. Even if they have relatives or family members who regularly use drugs.
My Fate According to the Butterflydiscuses the drug war with nuance and sympathy. Complex topics like addiction are explained thoroughly but without scaring kids away. If you’re a parent or a teacher who wants to open a conversation about the drug problem with your kid or your students, this book is a great starting point.
About the Author
Gail D. Villanueva is a Filipino author born and based in the Philippines. She’s also a web designer, an entrepreneur, and a graphic artist. She loves pineapple pizza, seafood, and chocolate, but not in a single dish together (eww). Gail and her husband live in the outskirts of Manila with their dogs, ducks, turtles, cats, and one friendly but lonesome chicken. Her debut novel, My Fate According to the Butterfly, is coming from Scholastic Press on July 30, 2019.
And now for the pièce de résistance! I was lucky enough to get a chance to ask the author, Gail Villanueva, a few questions.
Q1: Hi Gail! Let me just get this out of the way real quick – I LOVED your book. My Fate According to the Butterfly was so uplifting and so powerful. What was your favorite part about writing Sab’s story?
Thank you! I’m so happy you enjoyed my book. I really loved drafting it—the process was very cathartic for me. Although that version is something I hope no one ever sees (hehe my drafts can be very messy), it was full of raw (and typo-laden) emotions. But I think my favorite part ever in making this book was the research part. I love meeting new people and learning new things.
Q2: What’s the biggest challenge in writing from the POV of such a young protagonist?
My husband likes to joke that sometimes I behave like an eleven-year-old trapped in an adult’s body. Haha. Seriously though, the hardest part in writing for kids is condensing complex and very adult concepts into a story that kids will understand and at the same time, relate to. It was difficult to balance teachable moments with the silly, sometimes gross, scenes. And those teachable moments can’t be too boring, or kids will lose interest. Luckily, I’ve got a great publication team behind me, and together we were able to make Sab’s story fun and educational at the same time.
Q3: Drug/substance abuse is a complicated topic to discuss with a young audience. What research did you do about it while writing your book? Did you interview recovering addicts or those affected by our country’s war on drugs?
Oh, a whole lot, and I really loved every moment of it! I did the usual research of reading articles and blog/social media posts from both ends of the political spectrum, but I found more wealth of information in actually meeting and talking with the people affected (whether in a good or bad way) by the anti-illegal drugs campaign. I’m fortunate that I have contacts in this area—through my dad (who is a photojournalist for a national paper), my day job, and the network I made during my time as one of the organizers of the Philippine Blog Awards. I’ve also done social work in the past so I had a pretty good idea of where to start.
But the ones that made the most impact on me and my story are the casual conversations over pulutan and bottles of Pale Pilsen. I couldn’t just rely on formal interviews, news articles, and think pieces—I needed to really know the people. I needed to be there. Most (if not all) of them are off-the-record, but these lengthy conversations with folks directly affected by the drug war allowed me to fully understand the stories behind the varying opinions.
For the recovery portion… My own sister is schizophrenic and have undergone rehabilitation, so I had a pretty good starting point in that area too. And since this book’s primarily distributed in the US, my publisher had an expert review the addiction aspect of my story for young American readers.
There are so many people who have helped me make this book possible. Most of them prefer to remain anonymous (and rightfully so), but without their insight, My Fate According to the Butterfly wouldn’t be what it is now.
Q4: What’s your first memory of the drug problem in the Philippines?
The use of illegal drugs in the Philippines goes farther than I can remember. But my first introduction to actually knowing it’s a problem was when I was twelve or thirteen. I remember helping my dad install a metal “cage” around our water meter which was outside our house. I asked him why we had to put the water meter in a cage. After all, it wasn’t as if it could unscrew itself and walk away, right? My dad didn’t laugh at my pathetic attempt of a joke, and looked over on the other side of the street where a group of teenagers and preteens were hanging out by the steps of an abandoned building. “This is already a new water meter,” he said. “The old one was stolen.”
It was difficult for me to fathom. After all, our property was right beside a bank. Surely, they would have security? But my dad said the security guards, even with their guns, would not be able to take on a group of kids high on drugs. I peered closer at the teens on the other side of the street. Sure enough, they weren’t just hanging out. They were sniffing glue (contact cement) in plastic bags while in broad daylight. Those kids and my family were actually friendly because we lived in the same area (well, maybe except for the meter-stealing), but knowing that didn’t make the situation any less troubling.
At that moment, the issue of illegal drug use became real to me. It was more than just reading about a drug-induced rage-murder on the newspaper, or hearing about a drug bust on TV—the drug problem was right there in my own neighborhood. It was a rude awakening, but a necessary one.
Q5: What superstitious belief do you still genuinely believe?
There are superstitions that I don’t follow and get me in trouble with titas and lolas, but the black butterfly is one that I really, truly believe in. I believe I saw it when my friend died, and when my lola died. I made the black butterfly more magical in my story for the simple reason that it was just way too real for me.
Another one that I’m very particular about in following is the belief on “pagpag.” I always, always make sure to visit another place before coming home from a wake. I mean, it may or may not be true, but I’d rather be safe than sorry. I wouldn’t want to bring home a stow-away ghost or something.
Q6: Lastly, and this might already have an obvious answer but… what’s your favorite Filipino treat and is there a special memory you associate with it?
I love mais con hielo. It’s not as common as halo-halo in restaurants (I mean, you can get halo-halo in Chowking but not mais con hielo), but I remember my mom and my grandmother going out of their way to get me my favorite dessert even when everyone in the family was eating halo-halo. Actually, I love any dessert with corn. My mom, before she had a stroke that paralyzed half her body, used to make a really delicious ginataang mais. She taught me the recipe (which she said she learned from her own mother), but I don’t think my version will ever be as good as hers!