While I’m mostly a sucker for a tearjearker—otherwise I’d never go see Pixar films—sometimes I just flat-out refuse to see things that I know are going to send me spiralling into weeks of hysteria, lamenting the death/lost love/actually happy ending of some fictional person/lion/robot or other. It’s why I’ve never seen/read Whale Rider, The Notebook, and, topically, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas author John Boyne has a shiny new release called Noah Barleywater Runs Away. Now, as I haven’t read Boy, I can’t do much in the way of comparing. But I do know that Boy was one of those books that worked for children and adults—that it was set in the world of children, but in a way that adults could understand it differently. Noah Barleywater Runs Away is, I feel, aimed more at children, though I’m a big proponent of Everyone Should Read Whatever The Hell They Want And No One Should Ever Make Them Feel Bad About It, so adults could (and undoubtedly will) read this too. Because while Noah has talking donkeys and magical doors, it also has a tinge of sadness that made me stop reading at one point on the train, lest I burst into tears and cause everyone to move into another carriage at speed.
Noah Barleywater is eight years old, and, upon reflection, doesn’t feel he’s done enough with his life. Sure, he came third in the 500 metres at Sports Day the year before, and he knows the capital of Portugal (it’s Lisbon), but it’s about time he really went out and achieved something. So he runs away from home early one morning to do so. And on the way he encounters many extraordinary places and people, as eight-year-olds are wont to do in books about running away (because a more realistic book would be something short like “he ran away and then hid in a bus stop until someone saw him, called the police and he was sent home.”)
More than a little influenced by the likes of Enid Blyton and glorious old fairytales, he meets a talking tree in the first village who pleads with him not to steal its apples; by the next village, shortly afterwards, Noah’s apple theft has made front-page news and he is considered a menace to society. Luckily for him, the third village is a lot more welcoming, and there he meets a kindly old toyshop owner, whittling away at a piece of wood and ready to share the story of his life with Noah. This old man was a runner so fast he’d be back from the edge of the city by the end of your sentence, and met the King and Queen, amongst other celebrities; but he was also a man filled with regrets. By sharing the story of his life, he causes Noah too to reflect on the real, heartbreaking reason why he’s run away from the family he loves so dearly.
Well I’ve made that sound all very serious, but I think it’s because of Noah’s straight and fairly dignified way of speaking (“Goodness!” he will say, unlike the sweary eight-year-olds I’ve encountered.) Noah does have a sense of humour, and the whole book is very entertaining, filled as it is with great adventures and talking animals and flashbacks of Noah’s recent, real-life adventures with his suddenly very animated mother. It’s definitely aimed at children—but, as it’s a secret little sequel to something much-loved by adults, anyone who likes to have a bit of fairytale fun when they read will have a ball. And then a bawl. (How do I not have a book contract yet with this startling wit?)
Of note also is the fact that the cover is illustrated by the fabulous Oliver Jeffers, who not only wrote Lost and Found and The Book-Eating Boy (amongst others), but is so visually cool that he recently appeared on The Sartorialist, looking dashing and upsetting people everywhere who don’t own blue shoes. I sent an email with a question to Oliver once, and he replied personally and in a friendly manner, so know that good people were involved in creating this work, and you should make a cup of cocoa, and curl up with a lovely little book. Except not until October, when it’s released. Sorry.