Noah Barleywater Runs Away by John Boyne

Noah Barleywater Runs Away by John Boyne

Christmas gift / book review

A recommended gift book for Christmas is Noah Barleywater Runs Away by John Boyne, illustrated by Oliver Jeffers (published David Fickling Books).

Noah Barleywater Runs Away was the first book I was commissioned to review for the Weekend Australian in 2010. The book is still in print and I have fond memories of chairing sessions with John Boyne, author of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and other books at Sydney Writers Festival (over three days) and a couple of sessions at Brisbane Writers Festival, including one with Andy Griffiths that remains one of my absolute favourite moderating sessions of all time. It sparkled, metaphorically bounded around the room and “went off”!

I have reproduced an extract from my review of Noah Barleywater Runs Away here at PaperbarkWords blog as a reminder that this book is an ideal Christmas gift for a child or for the family to share. It’s also a lovely reminiscence for me of the magic of first reading and reviewing it (this review is now not generally accessible and should still be of interest).

Noah Barleywater Runs Away by John Boyne

John Boyne’s young adult novel The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, a Holocaust tale seen through a nine-year-old boy’s naive eyes, has overwhelmed and astounded many people in its book and movie forms.

Noah Barleywater Runs Away also has a young boy as the main character, but this sparsely illustrated novel is in the form of an audacious, reworked fairytale and so is quite different.

It is aimed at younger (as well as older) readers and is an affirmation of love, even while it confronts grief and death.

Eight-year-old Noah spends a day with a toymaker whom he finds in a misshapen house deep in the forest.

During this day the reason for his running away subtly unfolds. Images from fairytales such as the special tree, the number three, apples, talking animals — here a dachshund and hungry donkey — and flighty furniture highlight the fable element of the story.

Noah’s time with the toymaker will spark children’s imaginations.

The shop is cluttered with wooden toys; not a piece of plastic or metal is in sight. There are train sets, marching armies, houses, villages and boats, all painted in colours Noah has never seen before or can even begin to name. The clock is painted a “colour that green might like to be if it had any imagination at all”.

But eclipsing these treasures are the puppets, which are of such multitude, range and energy as if to be alive.

Image by Oliver Jeffers in Noah Barleywater Runs Away by John Boyne

Time is fluid in the forest and house, and in the stories the toymaker tells of his life as an elite runner who travelled the world. These story-lines become part of the plot and provide contrast and interest for young readers. Even though this external setting is integral to the toymaker’s tales of adventure and broken promises, it sits a little uneasily against the imagined world of the house and toys.

Humour is sprinkled throughout the narrative and is a foil to the big themes and moral questions in the book. Some of the toymaker’s platitudes seem obscure even when they parallel Noah’s sorrowful revelations:

“A boy . . . a real boy . . . he grows old and nothing lies ahead of him but death.” There is, however, a wonder-filled twist and all then becomes clear.

Noah Barleywater Runs Away does have some bleak elements that may make it unsuitable for very young or sensitive children but it is ultimately positive, original and important and may well become a contemporary children’s classic, one that adults will also enjoy sharing.

(review by Joy Lawn, extract from the Weekend Australian 11/2010)

Noah Barleywater Runs Away book trailer

Noah Barleywater Runs Away at Penguin Random House Australia

John Boyne (Penguin Random House Aus website)

John Boyne’s website

My review of The Boy at the Top of the Mountain (companion book to The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas) by John Boyne at Children’s Books Daily blog

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