The story begins in Sydney, Australia, where Barnaby is born to parents who, above all, desperately want to be "normal" at whatever the cost. The book is very British. The characters are named Barnaby and Alistair (his father).
Barnaby's older brother and sister have been perfectly normal since they were born. But Barnaby, to the everlasting horror of his parents, was born with the ability to float. Rather, he must float. Gravity does not affect him as it does the rest of the world -- he simply will float through the air unless tied down or weighted with a heavy backpack (called a rucksack in the story).
Unable to deal with the limelight that Barnaby inadvertently brings upon the family, his parents (in true Hansel and Gretel parenting style) decide to simply allow Barnaby to "accidentally" float away. They tell his brother and sister, who are rather caring siblings, that it was Barnaby's fault for taking off his rucksack. They don't admit that his mother sliced a hole in the rucksack so the sand that weighted Barnaby down fell out until he floated away.
Barnaby is rescued over and over in the most fantastic ways (fantastic meaning improbable). He meets others on what becomes a journey around the world, and oddly, most of those he meets are others to whom the term "normal" has become anathema. The first rescue is by two ladies in a hot air balloon traveling together from Australia to Brazil to their coffee plantation.
They were ostracized by their families when they decided to live their lives together. Hinted, rather than spelled out, is that they are a couple. He eventually meets (and helps) artists, an unwed mother whose father won't speak to her, enslaved "freaks," and astronauts, among others. When he finally returns home hoping that his family will have missed him, he learns an important lesson.
This story is difficult to catalog. It's a story for middle grade readers but it contains some sophisticated themes. Although there is adventure in the story, it's not necessarily the kind of adventure that young readers want to read.
This book would be a great choice for a classroom read-aloud. That activity would allow a parent or teacher to have a great time with the fabulous dialogue that Boyne writes. Reading the book aloud would also allow for great discussion about the themes in the book. Friendship, family, bullying and being different are discussed in detail.
One of Barnaby's rescuers is a man with severe facial scars from a fire. Boyne takes the reader through how people react to the physical appearance of the scarred man and how he feels when others stare at his face and react with repugnance.
Throughout the story, Barnaby's parents and some situations are drawn with Roald Dahl-esque horror. His parents are truly unfeeling, horrid people. They send him to a school that is run like a prison and described in true Dahl-ish style.
In a way, the book feels like a long picture book. While not filled with illustrations, there are enough of Jeffers' simple line drawings to evoke graphic images of the story. And it's easy to imagine the story as a picture book because the contents are too fantastical to be thought of as happening to real people.
Please note: This review is based on the final hardcover picture book provided by the publisher, Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers, for review purposes.
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