Everything old is new again. In this day and age authors aren't afraid to revitalize old story ideas. They aren't afraid to face critics who may pooh-pooh their efforts for being overly familiar. Such a critic was I when I picked up "Barkbelly" for the first time. Being the shallow cad that I am, I was drawn to its cover. Illustrator Peter Brown's mesmerizing image of a boy running for his life had a kind of "Jimmy Corrign" Chris Ware look to it. Later, when I had it at home, I glanced at the plot summary. The words "wooden boy" popped right out at me. Uh-oh, think I. Wooden boy? Have I just grabbed myself a Pinocchio rip-off? Further scanning of the summary without actually reading it(I like plots to surprise me) and the words "shiny wooden egg" also caught my attention. Uh-oh, think I. Eggs? Not Pinocchio then but potentially something equally odd. So with a mind fully prejudiced to dislike this book based on four words I dove headfirst into the novel. Let that be a lesson to you, my children. No matter how odd a book may sound, if it's well-written enough it'll trump even the best founded of prejudices. My prejudices were on remarkably shaky ground to begin with, so it didn't take long for Cat Weatherill to win me over. Yes, it is about a wooden boy who comes from a wooden egg. It is also a rousing quest tale and a great story about facing up to your past and finding people (both good and bad) in the world.
A wooden egg falls from a flying machine down down down to the earth below. It lands in a field where it waits. When the harvesting of that same field begins, the egg happens to bean one Gable Gantry upside the head. The man isn't hurt particularly but the owner of the field wants nothing to do with the object, so Gable takes it home to his wife. She cleans it off and displays it in the window until, on one particularly cold night, the two decide to toss it on the fire. In a flash and a bang the egg suddenly bursts from the fire, grows arms and legs and a head, and is a small screaming infant. The childless couple is delighted and name the wooden baby Barkbelly. Barkbelly, however, grows at an inconceivable rate. By the end of the month he's the size of a ten-year-old boy. The village accepts him readily enough but when the boy is involved in an unfortunate game of Bull Run with another boy he finds himself fleeing the village for his life. Now Barkbelly is on an adventure like no other. He works in a factory making jam, joins the circus, is captured by pirates, and finally discovers the truth behind other wooden people like himself. The question is what is he going to do with this knowledge, now that he's found it?
The book gets off to a slow start. It isn't until page 73, actually, that you hit the incident that makes Barkbelly run. But that isn't to say that what comes before isn't necessary. The real point of this book is that freedom, for all its disadvantages, is the right of every living creature. Barkbelly tends to some very large hedgehogs (or urchins) early on in the book and finds himself saddened by the idea that they are prisoners of the man who tends to them. In freeing them Barkbelly (quite unbeknownst to him) saves himself in the future. There are other themes and stories floating about the book as well, of course. There's the idea that when the truth comes, it tends to come slowly. The idea that family is what you make of it and just because you're directly related to someone, that doesn't mean they're like you. I liked that Weatherill took the old elderly-childlesss-couple-adopts-a-strange-creature-as-a-son idea and pumped some new life into it. Heck, I liked a lot of things in this book. I liked that for much of the time Barkbelly thinks that he's invincible. Aren't all young people like that? Of course, in his particular case, Barkbelly has some evidence to back him up. He's found, early on, that if a part of him is chopped off it just grows back and he never feels any pain. It comes as a really great shock to him to discover that he can be killed by fire. If we're looking at themes in this book, the greatest perhaps is that of a human being growing up. "Barkbelly" is an ideal metaphor packed in a children's book.
And the writing itself is quite nice as well. Weatherill has skillfully created a little world that doesn't try to do too much. Some first-time children's writers pack as much fantasy elements as they can into a book in the hope that it will make it good ("The King In the Window" by Adam Gopnik commits this crime, I believe). This author, however, knows exactly what she wants to bring into this story and does so. There are some fantastical things, of course. People make of wood, giant urchins, and the like. But for the most part this is a realistic story, and that realism makes you really care and worry for Barkbelly. When he sets off into the great big bad world, you know it's going to be just as nice and ugly as our own. No magic is going to poof him out of his difficulties (except at the end, but I'll get to that). No fairy with a wand is going to make his troubles go away. It makes for a much better read. Even at the beginning the book gets your attention with some lovely descriptive passages. A parrot trying to eat Barkbelly's egg, "tasted salt and sand, forest and fern". When it comes to writing and great characters and a wonderful plot (that really takes off after page 73), "Barkbelly" has them all beat.
Of course, the book isn't perfect. Not quite. I was quite excited as I reached its end. I thought Weatherill had something pretty special going on. Then I reached the climax of the book and my little heart sunk. The book relies on a miracle to save Barkbelly at the end and while I won't tell you what that miracle is, it's kind of a cheap escape. Not that the author doesn't set you up for it long in advance. Say what you will about Ms. Weatherill, she definitely knows how to tie all her loose ends together. Just the same, I've little use for miracles in children's books. To me they're just cheap cop-outs. Authorial short-cuts to a happy ending. I've other objections to the climax as well but saying what they are would give away the book's finale and I don't want to do that. I know that a lot of people will differ from me on this subject, so I won't belabor it. Suffice it to say, it disappointed me but didn't quench my love for the novel. In fact, Weatherill ends her story with a wonderful little fable. The fable is so well told and so spot-on that I almost wish that the author would consider plucking it from "Barkbelly" and making it into its own separate picture book. I can promise at least one interested customer for such an object.
In the end, I'd recommend "Barkbelly" to any and all interested children. Recently I've been reading a lot of children's books that are fantastical in nature but would be more appropriate for older kiddies. The nice thing about "Barkbelly" is that it can be read to kids of all ages. I don't know how interesting some would find the passages that talk about the intricacies of a jam factory, but by and large this is a gripping epic of a tale that ties up neatly and with some great (dare I say?) lessons along the way. One of my favorite books of the year, no question.