Probably one of the biggest unsung heroes in the UKYA and Teen community is the wonderful Mr. Phil Earle. Through his work at Penguin, he’s known throughout the publishing industry as enthusiastic, always ready with a smile and a handshake, and a passionate recommendation for twelve dozen upcoming titles that he can’t wait to see you enjoy. Of course, in addition to his evangelical zeal for Teen Fiction and his warm, approachable demeanour, Phil is also a hugely talented (and woefully underrated) author of Teen Fiction himself. He’s skilled at drawing on his past experiences working with troubled youths to create heart wrenchingly honest and touching characters, as I mentioned in my previous review for the emotional rollercoaster that is Heroic. With The Bubble Wrap Boy, Phil is aiming at the younger end of the Teen market, with a softer, shorter novel… But he sure can still pack a huge heart into it.
The Bubble Wrap Boy tells the story of young Charlie Han, an unusually small, accident prone teenager who lives with his overbearing mother and nearly mute father above the family Chinese Takeaway restaurant. Charlie is far from popular at school, his minute stature and accident prone nature meaning he’s the source of a lot of pranks and laughter, and his mother is so overprotective that his home life is practically a padded cell. His only friend is the similarly outcast Linus, nicknamed Sinus because of his oversized nose, a sarcastically sharp individual with an obsession with staring at brick walls. So, yeah, Charlie Han’s life is far from exciting or comfortable, let alone exciting. He yearns for a chance to not always be the little kid who falls flat on his face just trying to walk to classes, and for the chance to prove to his mum that he’s not made out of fine china. Then, he comes across his chance when he accidently stumbles into the local skate park and is completely captivated by the teenagers who soar like birds, and more importantly, who fall over – a lot. An activity where falling off the board is part of the fun? Nothing could be more up Charlie’s street! Sinus isn’t so sure, but he admits that the promise of watching his tiny best friend break both arms and legs does have some appeal. The only problem is, how can Charlie possibly become a skating pro when his mum insists on a helmet just to go in the shower? He has to become a ninja of skating, hiding all evidence from her, including board, scratches and bruises… It isn’t going to be easy, but Charlie can’t avoid the call.
When The Bubble Wrap Boy opened with Charlie listing his problems with being short, I immediately felt a connection with him – I too had always been shorter and clumsier than the other kids at school. Charlie’s talent for over exaggeration and outlandish thought processes makes him a vibrantly likable, plucky little protagonist with brilliant melodramatic tendencies. In counterpoint to this is Sinus, who I thought was delightfully weird, confidently strange and acid tongued, is a sarcastically apathetic character. Between the two of them is a constant up and down of emotion, as Charlie becomes excitable and Sinus knocks him back to Earth with his dry realism. Charlie’s mum starts out the book on the line of caricature, but she swiftly develops into a warm woman with a whole host of deeply rooted troubles and a psychologically complex background that makes her behaviour heart aching – though frustrating. Phil has again created wonderfully faceted characters that encompass strengths, weaknesses and flaws perfectly, making them all outlandish, yet relatable at the same time.
As with his other books, The Bubble Wrap Boy positively crackles with distinctive voice that I’ve come to love from Mr. Earle’s books – He has an easy way of writing that is at times absurdly hilarious, pulling in great over the top metaphors, but also has a soft, muted sense of sadness that he can turn on at a moment’s notice. In fact, his quick, smart humour makes the drama stand out so sharply and in contrast that it can take your breath away. His narrative in The Bubble Wrap Boy is immediately outlandish, but when it hits the emotional points, it does it with poise and dignity that holds the reader’s attention and helps grow his character’s personalities, rounding them and making them more three dimensional. This book made me laugh out loud, and made me gasp out loud, and whilst the plot might have points that you can see coming as the reader, the intelligent, relevant voice in the storytelling makes everything feel shiny and new, dynamic and realistic despite the outlandish comedy beats. And just as you think you know where it’s going, an explosion of darkness, sadness will derail your expectations and keep you absolutely on the edge of your seat.
Flying for Dora,
Until next time, thanks for reading.