Bedtime stories have their own logic. The worlds conjured up by parents for their children in those twilight hours are often rebels against the conventional laws of physics, chronology and narrative. This might explain why Ben Miller’s The Boy Who Made the World Disappear – which the author acknowledges was written about and for his own son – is so, frankly, barmy.
It tells the story of Harrison, a space-loving eight-year-old with a terrible temper, who is gifted a rather peculiar party gift by a rather peculiar children’s entertainer – his very own black hole. In a sequence of events that calls to mind classic picturebook Angry Arthur, Harrison goes about gleefully lobbing everything that riles him, from broccoli to aggressive dogs to school bullies, into the swirling abyss. However, like a young King Midas, Harrison finally finds the black hole devouring some things he would quite like back, most notably his parents. This launches a (surprisingly) globe and timeline-trotting adventure as he tries to undo the damage he has unwittingly wrought.
The book seems to split into two parts in a way that is again akin to bedtime stories. As anyone who has lulled a child to sleep with a made-up adventure knows, there sometimes comes a point when you are called to wrap things up quickly but are not quite sure how to get the narrative from where it is to where it needs to be. This often leads to a flurry of non-sequiturs and coincidences and leaps of faith. It is this process that seems to be occurring in the second half of The Boy Who Made the World Disappear, which sees a series of hilarious, but increasingly ridiculous, twists and turns bring the story crash landing to its final destination.
This rather unconventional final act is earned by the tone set in the first. The book is written with a brilliantly absurdist voice that always seems to be on the verge of bursting into laughter at the world it is creating. This begins with the central premise, a young child being given a black hole disguised as a party balloon. Certainly at the start, this is just stated as a fact to accept. This drags the reader into the world, as, once you can live with this rather large leap of faith, all the subsequent ones are easier to take.
The book is beautifully illustrated by Daniela Jaglenka Terrazzini. The shadowy black and white sketches are an unusual mix between Manuel Šumberac’s moodiness in books like Orphans of the Tide and Levi Pinfold’s off-kilter playfulness in offerings like Black Dog. This strange (but engaging) balance mirrors that of the book, which pretends to take itself seriously but is constantly, and knowingly, undercutting expectations.
The moral of the story is definitely meant to be about controlling your temper, with Harrison finding that things go much more easily for him when he asks nicely for help, rather than screaming and shouting and throwing things into a cosmic bin. Miller seems to be aware that this message gets slightly lost in the crazy ending and so clearly states it in an epilogue. This maybe seems slightly heavy-handed but they are good messages to be shared and it ensures no child misses them.
As crazy as the narrative can sometimes be, it also contains some true and fascinating information about astronomy and space. As such, it could work well as a light-hearted class read during a space topic or a book to engage any child with a personal interest in the subject. It is suitable for children to read themselves from Y4, or to have shared with them in Y3.
This is certainly not a book that submits to expectations of how it should unfold but it is this imagination, along with its snappy pace, that is sure to make it a huge hit with kids.
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