Donald Davis,
Ride the Butterflies:
Back to School
with Donald Davis

(August House, 2000)

Donald Davis is possibly one of the best-loved modern storytellers, known for his slice-of-life stories which strike a chord in his listeners' hearts. In Ride the Butterflies, Davis presents five stories from his performance repertoire about his experiences in school, from kindergarten to high school.

If nothing else, I will bless Davis forever for his story "Mrs. Rosemary," where he recalls his days in a private kindergarten. One day, Mrs. Rosemary comforts Davis when his kitten dies for "no good reason." "[N]othing ever dies for no reason," says Mrs. Rosemary. "If something dies, it is either because it got too hurt to get well, or too sick to get well, or, if you are really lucky, just plain too old to get well." I have never before heard such a clear and succinct answer to the question "Why did someone die?" and I found myself using Mrs. Rosemary's explanation with my own young children. Beyond that, "Mrs. Rosemary" is a warm and funny story, touching without being overly sentimental.

"Winning and Losing" brings young Davis to first grade in public school, where he learns about losing in a big way, when he can't get to a bathroom during the first day of school assembly. He but gets away with it, but the moment is revisited a year later, in second grade, with unexpected -- and winning -- results.

"Miss Daisy" describes his year in Miss Daisy Rose Boring's fourth grade -- a year that was anything but boring. Miss Daisy is tiny but tough, and although she has been teaching for more than 40 years, she doesn't know the meaning of burnout. Her teaching style is creative and lively as she presents the topics through having the children plan a trip around the world. She incorporates math, problem solving, spelling, geography and more into work that feels like play. Davis makes a butterfly big enough to ride on as a class project when they get to the Amazon. Not only does the mammoth butterfly proved the title for the collection but it figures in the poignant twist at the end.

Davis moves to early high school with "Experience." He and his friends think they've seen it all, but the high school teachers are more than ready for them. From Mrs. Amelia Harrison, the English teacher who know just how to handle chronic gum chewers to Miss Virgilius Darwin, a Latin teacher with an iron finger and steel-trap reflexes to Mrs. Birch Bryan, typing teacher with a mission, Davis and his friends find out who really has experience.

The final story, "Stanley Easter," breaks down racial barriers as Davis describes his experiences as a high school student learning to drive a school bus along with a black student, Stanley Easter. It's the early '60s and schools in Sulpher Springs, North Carolina, are still segregated, and while Davis doesn't see much of Stanley socially, their bus routes cross, and they acknowledge each other. Davis finds his world view readjusting a few times, right up to the kicker punch line.

Davis's voice shines through the gently paced stories. Regardless of whether you have heard him tell stories, you can hear his delivery in the rhythm of his prose. He has an eye for telling and homely details which are universal and make the stories more meaningful.

If you're looking for something short and sweet that also has substance, you can't do much better than Ride the Butterflies with Donald Davis. And remember -- if you can read this, thank a teacher.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]

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