Review: The Terrible Thing That Happened to Barnaby Brocket by John Boyne


January 10, 2013 by Heidi

The Terrible Thing That Happened to Barnaby Brocket by John Boyne book coverTitle: The Terrible Thing That Happened to Barnaby Brocket [Amazon|Goodreads]
Author: John Boyne [Website|Twitter|Facebook]
Standing: Stand alone.
Genre: Middle Grade, Speculative Fiction
Published: January 8th, 2013 by Knopf BFYR
Format: Hardcover; 288 pages. Illustrated by Oliver Jeffers
Source: ARC from publisher via NetGalley

Barnaby Brocket is an ordinary 8-year-old boy in most ways, but he was born different in one important way: he floats. Unlike everyone else, Barnaby does not obey the law of gravity. His parents, who have a horror of being noticed, want desperately for Barnaby to be normal, but he can’t help who he is. And when the unthinkable happens, Barnaby finds himself on a journey that takes him all over the world. From Brazil to New York, Canada to Ireland, and even to space, the floating boy meets all sorts of different people—and discovers who he really is along the way.

This whimsical novel will delight middle graders, and make readers of all ages question the meaning of normal.

The Terrible Thing That Happened to Barnaby Brocket illustration by Oliver JeffersReading The Terrible Thing That Happened to Barnaby Brocket by John Boyne was a bit of a stretch for me, even as an avid Middle Grade fan, perhaps because the book skews toward the younger end of that spectrum (around age 8).  While it was adventurous, charming, and wonderfully written, it was also too heavy handed for my tastes.  I believe it will be an ideal book for many children (or adults) who need to feel as if it is okay to be something other than “normal”, but complete lack of subtlety and a requirement for the suspension of disbelief beyond what I myself am willing to give made The Terrible Thing That Happened to Barnaby Brocket a poor match for this particular reader.

I elected to read John Boyne’s most recent book largely because I had heard such wonderful things about the very successful, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.  In whimsy and style, I was not disappointed.  I could easily imagine the audio for The Terrible Thing That Happened to Barnaby Brocket being narrated by Jim Dale (the man who captures charm through narration like none other), and would instantly liken the writing to one of my all time favorites–Roald Dahl.  However, where Roald Dahl coaxes readers along to a message through a marvelous tale, John Boyne has veritably beaten us over the head with his message, the adventure becoming almost a side show to this main act of proselytizing.

“Anyway, the point is, just because your version of normal isn’t the same as someone else’s version doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with you.”

Is the message something I disagree with?  Absolutely not!  Boyne works very hard to show us through the tale of Barnaby Brocket that there is no such thing as normal.  Sometimes (all too often, in fact), those who are supposed to love us and support us unconditionally (our parents) are unable to accept the fact that we are different from what they had envisioned when they decided to raise a child.  We might choose a career path they don’t approve of, we might love someone they don’t approve of, or, as in the case of Barnaby, we may have an innate nature they don’t approve of.  You see, Barnaby floats.  He can’t help it, since he was born he has been unable to keep his feet on the ground.  As you can imagine, this makes all sorts of daily tasks difficult (just imagine going to the bathroom), but as Barnaby knows no other way to be, he has much less difficulty accepting this fate than his parents who are bent on having the most normal of families.

This is where my willing suspension of disbelief began to wear off.  I am a reader of speculative fiction.  I can accept without difficulty the notion of a child who floats, a woman who disappears when she sneezes, or the power of coincidence, but when literally every person that Barnaby meets throughout his travels can relate to him because they have had similar family issues, I begin to roll my eyes a bit.  Yes, there are an unfortunate number of families in the world who for some reason or another find it difficult to accept one of their number, but is it really so common that every single person this boy meets would have experienced it first hand?  If so, that’s just depressing.The Terrible Thing That Happened to Barnaby Brocket illustration by Oliver Jeffers

I fully recognize that these issues are mine and not this book’s.  Perhaps it is incredibly sad that I am so jaded that I cannot accept this story for the beautiful tale of finding oneself and acceptance that it is.  I do love the notion that John Boyne has not tried to shield children from reality.  No, sometimes people will not open their eyes to the mistakes they are making, sometimes they will not change, and sometimes they will–it is up to the person themselves.  You are the only one who has true control over how happy you are with who you are, and the only person in the end that you need to please.  This is a wonderful message, I just prefer to dig my messages out of a story rather than have them beat down my door.

The Terrible Thing That Happened to Barnaby Brocket is a wonderfully and charmingly written tale that will surely affect many readers.  Oliver Jeffers’s illustrations capture moments throughout Baranby’s story perfectly, and certainly add to the story by sparking our imaginations.  I will be recommending this book in a professional capacity to the right readers, despite the fact that I can recognize it was not me.

Likelihood that I’ll be back for more:  I’m really disappointed in my experience with The Terrible Thing That Happened to Barnaby Brocket.  The writing style and adventure gave all the right cues that this would be a book I’d adore, and yet I didn’t.  I do not think I will personally be reading any more John Boyne in the future.

Recommended for:  Readers who value a message in a story, particularly the idea that there is no normal and the importance of accepting oneself regardless of what anyone else thinks.  Fans of Roald Dahl, travel adventures, and whimsical tales.

Get a second opinion:  Have you reviewed The Terrible Thing That Happened to Barnaby Brocket?  If so, let me know and I’ll link your review here.


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  1. I’m so sorry this one didn’t work for you, Heidi, but this certain suspension of belief and style is a reason why I shy away from most MG novels. I know many others enjoy them, but they just aren’t for me sometimes, especially when I crave more depth and almost wish the same plots had been intended for YA, so I perfectly understand your dilemma. Is this the same author who wrote The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, because if so, I loved that one. I read and saw the movie a few years back and it was painful, but very touching. I can’t recall if it’s the same author, but if so, you might want to give it a try. Anyway, thanks for the honest review, Heidi!(: This has been getting a lot of attention, lately, but I think I’ll just skip it.

    • Heidi says:

      Yeah, sometimes I love the cutesy ness of MG books, but in this one it just didn’t work…it came across feeling kind of superior and like he was writing down to kids, which I hate. It IS the same author who wrote The Boy in the Striped Pajamas! That’s actually why I picked it up, but it just wasn’t for me at all.

  2. I LOVE that you were able to highlight what was great about the idea of the book while still being true to your frustrations about the read.

    I’m with you. I would much prefer reading into something or reading conversations between characters to show insight versus having the point plopped in front of me again and again.

    I really did like The Boy In The Striped Pajamas, but it almost had this feeling of superiority to me. Whereas Dahl books never felt like they were talking down to the reader or that they were necessarily written by An Adult, Boyne’s writing felt very much like an adult telling a children a moral tale.

    Maybe I’m nitpicking here, but it was helpful to see you review one of his books and know I’m not alone!

    But really – this book sounds like it DOES have a wonderful message which is something you highlight and is something important for us to remember as well.

    • Heidi says:

      Thanks, Lisa!!

      It’s SO helpful to know I’m not alone with my experience with Boyne! It’s like, I can see why so many people love his work, but it is like an adult spoon feeding moral lessons to kids, which I don’t really like.

  3. VeganYANerds says:

    Wonderful review, Heidi. It’s great to be able to acknowledge a book for being a good read, but not for you and I think I’m a little jaded, too 😉

    I love the long title and the idea does sound cute, and great for kids who might be feeling a bit left out.

    I have read The Boy in the … and I found to to be an ok read. It was quite young, it was pretty obvious the whole way through what was happening. But, my dad also recommended the book to me by explaining the plot and the ending – ha! I’d say you’re right to skip it.

    • Heidi says:

      Thanks, Mandy. I actually love long titles like this as well! Plus, he’s an Aussie author. 😛

      Glad you think it’s fine to skip Striped Pajamas, I’m really just not that interested in giving it a shot after this one.

  4. Danya says:

    “I just prefer to dig my messages out of a story rather than have them beat down my door.” >> Loved this line! I feel exactly the same way — having messages shoved at the reader in such an obvious way just makes me cringe. Subtlety is key!

    • Heidi says:

      Thanks, Danya! Yes–I guess maybe non-subtle works for non-readers? I’m not sure…I just feel like if this were the type of book I was always reading when I was that age, I wouldn’t be reading as much as I do today.

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