The Terrible Thing That Happened to Barnaby Brocket Book Poster Image

The Terrible Thing That Happened to Barnaby Brocket



Well-intentioned tale of floating boy celebrates diversity.

What parents need to know

Educational value

Readers will get a modest geography lesson, starting with Barnaby's hometown -- Sydney, Australia -- and following him on his travels to Sao Paulo, Brazil; New York City, Toronto, and Dublin, Ireland.

Positive messages

It's OK to be different, Barnaby learns on his journey. Each character he meets, rejected by their parents for being different, has strived to build a satisfying life on his or her own terms. 

Positive role models

Barnaby's new friends, who've felt the isolation of being labeled "not normal," reach out to Barnaby with open hearts and empathy. Barnaby is quick to recognize generosity and friendship and seeks to repay it in kind. His parents warm up a bit by the story's end but never come around; his siblings, however, firmly challenge their parents' assessment that Barnaby is cause for shame.

Violence & scariness

Barnaby barely survives a fire at school because he's been tied to his chair in the classroom. His mother maliciously frees him from his moorings, leaving him to float uncontrollably into the sky. He's later saved from floating away again by a man who then kidnaps him, seeking to add to his collection of "freaks" to display. Barnaby later faces an operation he does not want but his parents insists he have. 

Not applicable

Parents Need to Know

Parents need to know that The Terrible Thing That Happened to Barnaby Brocket uses some vile characters to make its point: that there's nothing wrong with being different. Barnaby and most of the characters he encounters have been rejected by their parents, and each is soldiering on. He befriends an older lesbian couple, a pregnant teen, and a homeless artist, among others. The story opens with a description of Barnaby's birth, including an illustration of his mother in the delivery room. Barnaby is kidnapped for a freak show at one point, and one character recounts being burned in a fire when he topples a light while looking for pictures of naked models.

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What's the story?

Since the day he was born, Barnaby Brocket has defied gravity: He floats. He can't help it, but his mortified parents are sure he's just being spiteful. By the time he's 8, his parents are fed up. They hatch an awful plan to simply let him float away. Barnaby is hurt but determined to find his way home to Sydney, Australia. As he traverses the globe and space, he meets a succession of friends who empathize with his abandonment: an elderly lesbian couple in a hot-air balloon, an unwed pregnant teen, a homeless artist, a disfigured art critic, a young boy with hooks for hands, a crew of astronauts in space. Finally, Barnaby faces a choice: join his family as a normal boy, or float along on his own.

Is it any good?


John Boyne starts with a fanciful hook -- a boy who defies the law of gravity -- but weighs it down with a thinly developed hero and a plodding emphasis on his message. Young readers who get past the slow warm-up probably will enjoy the fantasy and Oliver Jeffers' charming illustrations, and they might smile at the sly references to Roald Dahl and Harry Potter. The message is admirable -- being different is worthy of celebration, not shame -- but the heavy-handed repetition grows tiresome.

Boyne claims the moral high ground, but his position is undercut by unfortunate choices, including a Japanese caricature who's obsessed with honor and the lesbian couple's sneering disparagement of husbands. Which is a shame, because Boyne has some terrific material here: wretchedly villainous parents, a smart boy hero who desperately wants to please his parents, and brave choices in the supporting cast.

Families can talk about...

  • Families can talk about why evil parents (and stepparents and other caregivers) so often appear in children's stories. Why do authors build stories around such nasty adults? Are they funny or frightening?

  • Do you support Barnaby's right to strike out on his own? Should he stay close to his family despite their differences?

  • Does Barnaby's story remind you of Roald Dahl books with mean adults like Matilda and James and the Giant Peach?

Book details

Author:John Boyne
Illustrator:Oliver Jeffers
Topics:Adventures, Brothers and sisters, Friendship, Misfits and underdogs
Book type:Fiction
Publisher:Alfred A. Knopf
Publication date:January 8, 2013
Number of pages:288
Publisher's recommended age(s):8 - 12
Available on:Nook, Hardback, iBooks, Kindle

This review of The Terrible Thing That Happened to Barnaby Brocket was written by

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  • Not for Kids: Not age-appropriate for kids; not recommended for learning.

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