I also enjoyed the Merseyside author’s re-imaginings of Ian Fleming’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, aimed at a slightly younger audience. And The Unforgotten Coat was rightly acclaimed, although in the scheme of things more a short story.
Frank’s held a high profile since 2008’s Cosmic – like its two predecessors now set to become a film – and scripted the London 2012 Olympic Games opener for Danny Boyle, as well as a cracking 2014 episode of Dr Who (another story with a green theme), while carrying out promo work for his screenplay film adaptation of Eric Lomax’s The Railway Man and the BBC’s 500 Words competition.
But it’s his children’s writing he prioritises now, as seen with his 2015 World Book Day appearance at Preston North End FC and as hinted at last time I saw him, giving a Great Northern Creative Festival talk to budding screenwriters at the University of Central Lancashire. And on that latter occasion, he apologetically told his audience that, no offence, he’d rather have been elsewhere as he was having so much fun at home writing his next book.
No doubt we’ll hear more about that project at a later date, but right now I’ll concentrate on his most recent publication, and while I’m reticent to measure it against his first three, I will say Frank’s come up with another creative success here.
The Astounding Broccoli Boy is an often-touching, ultimately-inspirational adventure of a bullied schoolboy who discovers – in the most bizarre of circumstances – he has a superpower.
The story, illustrated by Steven Lenton, follows Brummie lad Rory Rooney, the smallest lad in his year, as he struggles to survive the unwelcome attention of school bullies and seemingly-insensitive teachers, his often well-intentioned but somewhat flawed actions misinterpreted and leading him into a spiral of negative happenings and resultant bad feedback.
If having his lunch stolen and getting thrown off the bus by Grim Komissky most days isn’t enough, worse is to come after the afore-mentioned bane of his life has an allergic reaction to one of his half-inched sandwiches and is duly hospitalised.
As a result, Grim’s henchmen decide to carry out a little summary (in)justice, with Rory thrown into a river during a school trip and …. well, turning a bright shade of broccoli green. Totally green, as it turns out, leading to an air-lift to a specialist London hospital, where his room-mate happens to be … yes, Grim Komissky, of all people.
In short, Rory and Grim are seen as a threat to the public, medical staff carrying out all manner of tests but quickly concluding that the nation can’t possibly deal with these boys being at large while already dealing with the so-called Killer Kittens virus.
Meanwhile, encouraged by his Dad’s love of comic superheroes – many of whom just so happen to have been green – Rory comes to the conclusion he could have extraordinary powers, not least a ‘200% brain’ and a gift for ‘slight teleporting’. In fact, he’s astounding.
That’s enough of the plot, other than to say there’s also a feisty female, Koko Kwok, in a similar predicament, and that for all that it sounds pretty outlandish, Frank somehow makes the plot feasible and tells it with great energy.
It’s entertaining throughout, and you believe in Rory as he looks to find out the truth about his condition and get back home to his family. We also get to understand Grim better – this is no one-dimensional villain – and find out who would win in a fight between a hippo and a freezer. There might even be penguins involved.
It’s a book that should appeal to boys and girls … of all ages. The accompanying blurb suggests ages nine and over, but I’ve just read it with my youngest daughter, about to turn 13, and we certainly enjoyed it. The pacy adventure and humour within will draw in younger readers, while Frank’s turn of phrase, imaginative prose and vivid imagery appeal to young and old alike.
Furthermore, from an educational point of view there are valuable – if subtle – life lessons to be learned too, in a story told with great care and warmth amid the laughs. And from the West Midlands to London and the heroes’ journeys through the night-time capital, it’s a gripping tale, not least the finale (particularly for this acrophobic).
Like all the best children’s books, it’s chock-full of imaginative twists and turns and covers big issues for kids without being patronising. Furthermore, while on the surface just a yarn, it’s well constructed and packs a proper punch.
The Astounding Broccoli Boy by Frank Cottrell Boyce (Macmillan Children’s Books, 2015), priced £10.99 in hardback, is available from all good independent booksellers and various other sources, not least your local library.
And for a recent in-depth interview with Frank Cottrell Boyce on this blog, head here.