I am a girl who loves baseball. My brother and I would spend hours playing catch in the backyard when we were growing up. We would play for packs of baseball cards. And one of my favorite memories this past holiday break was playing catch with my dad and brother.
So I was obviously quite excited to read Mick Cochrane‘s (2009, Yearling, a Random House imprint) The Girl Who Threw Butterflies. And now, having just finished the last pages tonight, I must say this is a middle grades title I will definitely be sharing with my children’s literature students.
The book opens right after Molly’s father dies in a car accident. And when she cannot rely on her mother for emotional support, Molly turns to what her and her dad loved the most: baseball. Known as the butterfly pitch, the knuckleball is Molly’s specialty pitch and even though she played softball the previous season, she decides to take her knuckleball to baseball tryouts. With a little support from her best friend Cecilia and her new teammates, Molly learns to accept the game of life for what it is. And to strike out a few people in the process.
This is one of the most well-written middle grades books I’ve read in a long time. Here are three reasons why I love The Girl Who Threw Butterflies:
(1) Cochrane creates a sharp and insightful narrative voice that is able to capture beautifully Molly’s anxieties, fears, and hope. There is a refreshing realness to the way Molly thinks, and middle grades readers will find this appealing. I’ve marked several passages to share with my children’s literature students on Monday. Sometimes I wanted to have the book narrated by Molly herself but in so many ways I think it already is.
(2) It’s a baseball book not just a book about a girl who plays baseball. This is not a book that forces a female character into a gender-breaking role just for the sake of doing so. And I think that is so important here. Molly tries out for the baseball team because she has an excellent knuckleball and because baseball is what she and her dad shared. And whereas I understand the need for authors to push gender boundaries to make particular statement sometimes, I think the statements made about gender in this text are just as strong and in the context of a fabulous baseball book.
(3) The Girl Who Threw Butterflies does not shy away from a realistic portrayal of a middle schooler’s grief. Molly struggles with her emotions about her father’s passing in many scenes (e.g. when she finds her father’s reporter notebook and when she visualizes what it was like to play catch with him in the backyard). She wants her mother to be more available but for a variety of reasons she cannot be. And this is real. And like so many kids who are coping with loss or other difficulties, Molly has to learn to round up support from an array of sources. And, ultimately, through her struggles and doubts and questions, she realizes, “The knuckleball wasn’t just a pitch; it was an attitude toward life. It was a way of being in the world. It was a philosophy. ‘You don’t aim a butterfly,’ her father used to say. ‘You release it'” (p. 17). My husband is currently writing a dissertation about resilience, and if there is one word that describes Molly it is resilient.
Here are some teaching ideas:
(1) Cochrane makes it pretty clear that Molly comes to understand the world in the way she understands the knuckleball. This pitch becomes her life metaphor. Ask students to create their own life metaphor and provide a rationale.
(2) Molly is certainly disappointed with her mother in several scenes, but readers do not really get to hear her side of the story. Ask students to compose a letter from Molly’s mom to Molly. This might help students take on the mom’s perspective and think critically about the reasons she might act the way she does.
(3) This is, of course, Molly’s story, but I found the relationship Molly forms with Lonnie, who is also struggling with a family issue, to be particularly intriguing. Their connection becomes more than about the game of baseball. Ask students to discuss the similarities and differences between the family challenges facing Molly and Lonnie. This discussion might help some students understand that they are not alone in the struggles they experience with their families.
Let me know what you think of The Girl Who Threw Butterflies below!