Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 23 November 2014

Boyne hits the heights with towering follow-up to much-vaunted debut

John Boyne's first novel for children, The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas (2006), was a phenomenal success, selling more than five million copies.

It topped the New York Times bestseller list and was quickly followed by a Miramax feature film with rave reviews and box-office figures.

Its success was due to a combination of factors: a highly original and clever premise and plot, excellent writing, a worldwide and a crossover market - and the fact that it could be used as a key educational resource. Can Boyne's new novel for children reach similar heights ?

The Terrible Thing That Happened To Barnaby Brocket is another very well-written novel with an original and clever plot.

From the moment of his birth, Barnaby defies gravity, which brings with it a range of everyday problems for his very ordinary family. Barnaby tries to please his conventional and boring parents and keep both feet on the ground, but he is eventually set free and floats away.

His parents and siblings are comic characters with elements of Dahl-esque wackiness and Snickety malice.

Young readers will love the imaginative predicaments that lack of gravity present, from using the bathroom, sleeping on a mattress nailed to the ceiling to walking with a weighted rucksack.

Barnaby wins the reader's heart early in the story when his mother, who does not want to be seen in public with her son in case people point and stare, insists furiously that her son "stop floating this instant".

"I don't know how to," said Barnaby. "It's just who I am."

This is an imaginative and highly entertaining story about a boy who is different and learns to be proud of the fact. The novel features beautiful black and white line and wash illustrations by Oliver Jeffers, the internationally acclaimed and award-winning Brooklyn-based picture-book artist who hails from Belfast.

Jeffers' distinctive style is well-suited to the quirkiness of the concept and plot, often adding to the humour of a scene. Readers familiar with Jeffers' extraordinary work will wish there were more, and in full colour.

Barnaby's magical floating journey takes him from home in Sydney to Rio, New York, Toronto, Dublin, and to 'middle space' where his affliction comes in particularly useful.

He meets some extraordinary characters and has many fascinating adventures on these global travels, which are sure to tick a certain 'educational-tool' box.

However, it remains to be seen if the novel will reach a crossover market. Although the protagonist is just eight years old, its quirkiness, mature literary references and wisdom could garner a teen following.

Its philosophy and life-lessons have a similar feel to the 2009 animated movie Up, which has both child and adult appeal.

Imagine a Jeffers-style animated Barnaby Brocket movie - now that might really take off.

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