It's seven-year-old Lillian's first day at a new school, and she's got butterflies in her tummy. When she learns she has to bring something for Show and Tell at the end of the week, her butterflies turn into grasshoppers. Lillian and her mother have just moved away from Lillian's abusive father and into a family shelter, leaving behind all of their possessions. Every day that Lillian anxiously watches her classmates bring toys in to share, the creatures in her stomach change and grown, until finally, she realizes that imagination can make anything magical, even an ordinary string of beads.
Lily's stomach is full of butterflies. Since her mother took her away from home to live in a family shelter, Lily has had to start attending a new school, and her class includes a "Show and Tell" activity. Lily only has until the end of the week to find something to bring to show her new classmates, but all of her toys have been left back at her home with her father who sometimes has a really bad temper. As the week wears on, Lily grows more and more nervous about showing something to the class, and the butterflies in her stomach grow into grasshoppers, rabbits, donkeys, and even buffaloes. When the time for Show and Tell comes, Lily only has one thing to show the class – her beads, which to her, are magic. But will the rest of the class think so?
The Magic Beads, written by Susin Nielsen-Fernlund, is the tale of a girl overcoming shyness. Lily is the new girl at school, with typical fears of wanting the other students to like her. But Lily's situation may not be the most typical. She has moved to a new city to stay at a family shelter with her mother because her father sometimes hurt her and hit her mom. This aspect of the story adds a unique element to an otherwise familiar tale, and it gives the story the potential for a much wider audience, by having both a plot line relatable to almost anyone set against the backdrop of a serious issue many may not know much about. This book also does a good job of portraying emotions in a creative and relatable way. Lily's nervousness is something to which nearly everyone can relate, and the expansion of the 'butterflies in the stomach' theme creates a wonderful visual and imaginative description of what nervousness feels like.
The illustrations, done by Geneviève Côté, are crucial to this story. When Lily has butterflies, donkeys, and other strange creatures in her stomach, the illustrations show black, sketch-like animals all over the page, highlighting how scary the emotions Lily feels are. The illustrations also show Lily playing with her beads throughout the story, something that is not actually mentioned in the text until she brings the beads in for Show and Tell. The illustrations, however, always show her engaging with the beads, and when she starts to tell her class about them, previous images from earlier in the story are shown again, with the beads being magical. One example of this is when Lily can't watch t.v. because another boy in the shelter is already watching something. The original illustration shows Lily standing with her beads in a straight line, looking annoyed at the boy. When she is talking at Show and Tell, however, the illustration is shown again, but this time the straight line of beads is a wand, and the boy sitting in front of the t.v. has been turned into a frog.
There seem to be two separate story lines going on in this book. On the one hand, there is the story of Lily being a new girl at school and being nervous about making a good impression with her classmates. On the other hand, however, there is the story of Lily and her mother moving to a shelter to get away from an abusive father/husband. Throughout the tale, it seems like these two plot lines struggle for prominence in the story, and thus the tale as a whole seems a little disjointed. The two story lines are tied together through the struggle for Lily to find something to bring for Show and Tell, but it does seem like neither plot is fully developed, which sometimes makes it hard to tell what the real purpose of the story is.
The Magic Beads is a heartfelt tale of a girl overcoming her shyness at school. Although Lily's back story is complex and serious, her nervousness is something to which many children can relate, and by having the two story lines pulled together, this story could be a good way to begin to explore the topic of family life and abuse without overwhelming the reader. Neither plot line in this book seems completely developed, which means that this story should probably be read with other books on similar topics, but it is a nice tale with a happy ending that makes for an enjoyable read.