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From the author of 'The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas', this is John Boyne's second foray into children's writing, and as you might expect, it is just as good as the first.
The story begins one morning when eight-year-old Noah Barleywater gets up before dawn and leaves home; he can't bear to stay there any longer, and besides, it was about time he went out into the world and made something of himself. He walks through two villages, gets himself into bit of trouble stealing apples for breakfast, and converses with a talking donkey and daschund, before he comes across a toyshop. This is an unusual toyshop, though. It has lots of eerily realistic puppets, a vanishing door, and a kindly old toymaker. The toymaker sits Noah down, gives him breakfast, and they begin talking, although Noah is very reluctant to tell the toymaker why he has run away. So instead, they swap stories about their lives. The toymaker tells Noah all about his school days, and how he had a great running career, before coming home to take over his father's toy business. Noah tells the toymaker all about his family life, and his holidays, and gradually the toymaker is able to work out just why he has run away from home.
I found this book an incredibly enchanting tale. It has a fairy-tale like quality to it, which will appeal to children of all ages; I particularly enjoyed the talking animals who Noah meets near the beginning. While Noah himself seems to lead an ordinary life, once he leaves home, he seems to enter a completely different world, and the toyshop is the most magical of all the locations. The descriptions of it are full of amusing little details which really bring it to life, such as Alexander the self-conscious clock, and the rude red teddy bear. However, at its heart, the book isn't really about magic, it's about family, and the importance of sticking together through good and bad times. This is the message the toymaker imparts to Noah; he didn't realise it until too late, and doesn't want Noah to make the same mistake. As such, the book is also full of touching little details about family life, particularly the close relationship between Noah and his mother.
This book deals with issues of terminal illness. Because of this, I wouldn't recommend the book for young children, or those of an emotional nature, although it would be a good way of introducing children to ideas of death. I'll, admit, I found myself getting quite emotional at times, and had to stop reading. Overall, I would thoroughly recommend this book, but I would be cautious about buying it for children, as I think many would find it too upsetting, despite its fairytale qualities.
I work as a children's bookseller for a well known high street book store and as part of my job I get sent proofs and pre-releases of children's books. I love to read a variety of fiction and non-fiction books, and kids books is on particular area that I really enjoy. I am also training to be a primary school teacher so the subject knowledge proves invaluable when teaching too. I didn't actually receive this book as a proof but I received another upcoming title from the same author. Before I read the pre-release I decided to read 'Noah Barleywater Runs Away', by the same author, as it was published in 2010 for the same age group and not something I had ever made time to read before. I probably also need to explain that the only other John Boyne book I have read before is 'The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas', a children/teen/adult crossover title which I absolutely adored - if you haven't read it make sure you do.
So...'Noah Barleywater Runs Away' is aimed at 9-12 year olds and certainly, I would say, targets a slightly different audience from readers of 'The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas'. The two books are actually so radically different I found myself imaging two entirely separate authors. This is no bad thing though, I absolutely loved 'The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas' but I hate it when authors (an especially children's authors) try to cash in or recreate past success with similarly themed titles. This book is in no way similar to his best-selling book and all the better for it because it feels completely original, fresh and exciting.
The book itself is, as the title suggests, about a young boy who runs away from home. However, this is not any simple coming-of-age adventure story. This is a story about what happens when the problems in a child's life become too big for them to deal with. Noah's mother, as is slowly revealed in the course of the book, is terminally unwell. Her affliction is never classified in the book but what is clear is that not only does she slowly deteriorate but that she is likely to die. Noah clearly struggles to deal with these horrible and unfathomable circumstances and as a result runs away from home in the early hours of the morning. This is how the books begins, though as a reader you are unaware as to why he has left.
Noah has quite clearly, as most 8-year old boys would, not thought through this plan at all. He leaves home without having breakfast and quite quickly finds his stomach rumbling. When an interaction with an unusual apple tree turns bad he is forced to move onto the next town where he meets a rather curious talking Dachshund and a ravenous Donkey. After a lengthy and rather confusing conversation, reminiscent of the Mad Hatter and Alice at the Unbirthday party, Noah spies a toy shop which he can't stop himself from exploring. In the toy shops he meets and even stranger elderly man who invites him to lunch, and this is where the story takes an even stranger turn. Through chapters and chapters of tales and dialogue it becomes apparent that Noah is not all that unhappy at home and that he has run away because he would rather not think about his problems. By talking to the old man about his relationships with his father it begins to dawn on him that the most important place for him to be is with his mother. I won't spoil the ending for you but I probably enjoyed the last couple of chapters the most.
Needless to say this book is slightly bizarre, in fact it rather made me think it would make the most excellent Tim Burton film with the weird quirky elements and hints of magic. That said, after I had overcome my initial shock that the same man who wrote 'The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas' also wrote this book I absolutely fell in love with it. The writing is really clever and witty and the plot is a whimsical exciting journey which takes you round many an unexpected twist and turn. Ultimately at the heart of the book is a tender examination of the naivety and emotions that come with youth. The story is beautifully written and the ultimate message relates the prevailing strength of family and friendship.
The book is illustrated by Oliver Jeffers, both cover art and internal illustrations. The internal illustrations are an excellent and humorous addition to the book - in fact this is an outstanding pairing of two brilliant talents. The cover is different depending on whether you opt for the hardback or the paperback. As a serial book hoarder and collector I went for the hardback because I wanted a nice edition I could keep for a very long time. The book has a wood effect on it, an integral aspect of the story, and a beautiful tree on the front which has a central and rather symbolic role in the storyline. The overall appearance is great and well worth paying extra for - though the paperback is beautiful too with a lovely bright blue colour and stunning Jeffers' illustrations.
The hardback retails at £10.99 whilst the paperback comes in at a slightly cheaper £6.99. I think if you love John Boyne's writing then opt for the hardback because this is a book you will want to keep and re-read. However, if you have not read any of his work before or if you simply aren't that sure then opt for the slightly cheaper paperback as if you hate it you won't feel like you spent too much money!
Although this book is aimed at 9-12 year olds like 'The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas' this is definitely a crossover title which could be enjoyed by teenagers and adults alike. Some of the messages in the text are layered through his writing and there are certainly subtleties that not all children would pick up on. This makes it the perfect read for parent and child as they can both enjoy the story but glean different meaning from the text - would definitely make for an interesting discussion after the book is finished!
So, would I recommend this book? Absolutely. I loved it, and given the chance I'm sure you will love it too.