A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this book.
What 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.
Talk to your kids 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?
- Author: John Boyne
- Illustrator: Oliver Jeffers
- Genre: Fantasy
- Topics: Adventures, Brothers and Sisters, Friendship, Misfits and Underdogs
- Book type: Fiction
- Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
- Publication date: January 8, 2013
- Publisher's recommended age(s): 8 - 12
- Number of pages: 288
- Available on: Nook, Hardback, iBooks, Kindle
- Last updated: June 19, 2019
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