The Terrible Thing that Happened to Barnaby Brocket by John Boyne, illustrated by Oliver Jeffers (Doubleday 2012)
Reviewed by Ruth Brassington
Flying across a green sky above tall blue buildings, a boy wearing a red rucksack casts a flat shadow on the road below. Scribbled sun-tinged clouds share his sky, while a safely grounded dog gazes up at him, and not at the nearby street sign offering choices of ‘here’, there’ or ‘everywhere’.
The boy on the cover is Barnaby Brocket and the dog is Captain W. E. Johns, both members of “the most normal family in the southern hemisphere”. Barnaby is the third child of parents who work at the law firm of Bother & Blastit, but from the moment of his Sydney birth Barnaby is unique in his defiance of gravity. This boy just can’t keep his feet on the ground.
Although quite different from The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Boyne’s first children’s book (about the Holocaust), Barnaby Brocket’s story addresses another serious topic. Judging people because they differ from so-called “normal” can cause much misery, and Barnaby’s journey shows us the way – helped by a handful of interesting characters – to live and let live, to be true to yourself, and to celebrate difference.
The author and illustrator re-unite following their fantastical story Noah Barleywater Runs Away. But instead of magic forests, Barnaby Brocket’s journey is through the sky, whether he wants to go there or not. We fly all over the world and further with eight-year-old Barnaby and have lashings of adventures, with some scary bits and lots of fun.
The only criticism I have of this riveting book is editorial – the illustrator needed to read the text more closely, and the author needed to cross-check character descriptions. It’s disconcerting to see a picture of a two-headed girl when a two-headed man is mentioned, and puzzling to read “a little girl, Delilah” referred to as “the woman” a few pages later. I’ll be interested to see if the 10-year-old in my family notices. With one reviewer describing the book as suitable for 8-12-year-olds, she’s the average (“normal”) age and wants to read it. Good for reading aloud to younger children too, with plenty of entertainment for the adult reader: “If I feel like a bit of culture, I turn on Masterchef like normal people,” says Barnaby’s mother when he asks how many operas she’s attended.
I almost expected a moral at the end of the story, as with Aesop’s fables. But Barnaby and his friends live the moral on these well-written pages and it doesn’t need spelling out.