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September 27, 2012 | 12:00 a.m. CST
As a divorced mother raising two children, Sue Ann Jackson scribbled down ideas and poems in her journal whenever she had time. The notes began forming an outline of The Gift of the Butterfly Box, a story about a little girl named Varia who’s born in the town of Safesame. Despite the town’s strict rules that prohibit children from laughing, running and singing, Varia’s spirit can’t be stifled.
WHERE: Barnes & Noble at Columbia Mall
WHEN: Sat., Sept. 29, 3:30-5:30 p.m.
Nearly three decades later, Jackson’s journal became an 82-page children’s book with oil, watercolor and pastel illustrations by four generations of women. For Jackson, it’s also the book that brought her family back together.
In 1982, Jackson wrote the book for her then 8-year-old daughter, Jenna, who says it became her favorite tale. Jenna Moran, now 38, remembers secretly reading her mother’s journal while the story took shape.
“When I was little, the story helped me see my mom in a completely different perspective,” she says. “She wasn’t doing her art, she wasn’t painting, and the story made me see that she was trying to be herself.”
In The Gift of the Butterfly Box, Varia is evicted from the town. She can’t shake the feeling that she wants to change Safesame, so she returns to bring them a butterfly with the hope they will find it as beautiful as she does.
“It’s a story about forgiveness,” Jackson says. “It’s a story about healing and taking what you have in you that’s unique and making something powerfully good out of it.”
Around 1984, Jackson separated from her parents and three sisters for 12 years. She struggled to cope with her parents’ divorce and went through her own second divorce in the early ’90s.
Looking back on her life, Jackson says she would do it all differently if she could, but she also knows the years they spent apart were a time of personal growth. She returned to her artwork as a source of peace. “I was just painting like my life depended on it, and in some ways, it kind of did,” she says.
The idea to expand and publish The Gift of the Butterfly Box occurred to Jackson in the mid-1990s when her relationship with her parents, who had remarried, began to heal. She asked her mother, Alice Van Buren, if she would help illustrate the story, and together they put paint to canvas. Jackson’s daughter, Jenna, and her son’s daughter, Sarah, who is now 14, contributed many of the other illustrations.
When the family finished the project in September 2011, AKA-Publishing released the book in print, and it is now for sale online. It took 30 years, but The Gift of the Butterfly Box became the binding force that united Jackson with her family again.
Today, Jackson lives with her husband and her 87-year-old mother in a house surrounded by pink and yellow flowers at the end of an empty gravel road. Hummingbirds perch on the clothesline strung across the front porch, and family paintings cover every inch of wall space inside.
“Whatever trauma comes in your life, if you really want to survive, you latch onto every positive thing you have to fight back,” Jackson says. “So, that was what I did."