John Boyne, The Terrible Thing that
Happened to Barnaby Brocket

Doubleday, 2012, ISBN 978-0-857-53146-9

What a versatile author John Boyne is! This book is very different from The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. Don’t let that be a deterrent. It’s clever, action-packed and funny with some serious messages too.

Barnaby Brocket is an unusual child. From the moment of birth he has defied gravity, floating upwards unless tethered. Unfortunately his parents value normality above all else. Their son’s floating is a source of shame. It prevents any possibility of love. They hide him away, terrified of ridicule. When their salvation, Graveling Academy for Unwanted Children, burns down, with Barnaby saved by a friend in the nick of time, they have no choice but to send him to the local primary. Mrs Brocket makes sure he is weighed down with a ballast-filled rucksack, to avoid any embarrassment. Then comes the school’s visit to Sydney Harbour Bridge. Eight year-old Barnaby is the ten millionth visitor. At the press conference to cover the event he rises unintentionally into the air. The excited television coverage brings the notoriety his parents dread. If he won’t make himself normal, they will put an end to his selfishness themselves, Mrs Brocket tells him. Powerless to change, the Terrible Thing happens to Barnaby. During a walk with his mother, she cuts a hole in his rucksack. Without the sand on his back to keep him down, he soars to the sky, his pleas for help ignored.

So begin Barnaby’s travels. What travels they are! Rescued by a redoubtable pair of female balloonists, he journeys to Brazil. He is moved by their tales of parental rejection, and their love for each other. Intending to return to Sydney, he unexpectedly finds himself in New York, then Toronto, Dublin, as part of a freak show, the Victoria Falls, and finally space. Everywhere he goes he meets extraordinary people, all of whom have been disowned by their families, and escaped convention to find fulfilment. At last Barnaby gets back to Sydney. Normality beckons. There is one last surprise to come.

Barnaby is a delightful creation. His plight, and his ability to rise above it, in every sense, have pleasing echoes of Roald Dahl. Children will love this book, especially the second half. The thought-provoking messages about normality, acceptance and love are handled sensitively and with a lightness of touch that ensures they do not mar the story. Bookish readers will enjoy the literary allusions. Barnaby’s devoted dog is called Captain W E Johns.

No review of this book would be complete without a tribute to Oliver Jeffers’ wonderful illustrations. They complement the text beautifully, and add a fabulous extra dimension.