The Author: Stewart Foster is a debut children’s author. He was one of the Observer's New Faces of Fiction for 2014.
Eleven-year-old Joe can't remember a life outside of his hospital room, with its beeping machines and view of London's rooftops. Joe suffers from severe combined immunodeficiency, a genetic condition that means he has no resistance to infection. His condition means he's not allowed outside, not even for a moment, and his few visitors risk bringing life-threatening germs inside his 'bubble'. But then someone new enters his world and changes it forever. This emotional story portrays how Joe spends his days, copes with his loneliness and frustrations, and looks - with superhero-style bravery, curiosity and hope - to a future without limits.
The real bubbleboy The story of Avid Vetter who lived his short (12yrs) life in a bubble in the 1970s
Share the introduction by the young and very enthusiastic Ilirian Bushi - consider some of the points he raises. Do you know anyone with a debilitating condition? Stephen Hawking, Nikki Christou, (Junior Bake Off winner).
Share the slide link - The real Bubbleboy. What are the group’s initial reactions? Alternatively or in addition you could share this link directly before reading chapter 16 - when a documentary about Joe is shown on television.
Share the tag line on the cover of the book: ‘Not all superheroes wear capes’. What are the children’s initial thoughts about what this might mean?
N.B Henry - the American character uses the word ‘crap’ in some of his Skype messages (first instance is in chapter 4). Explain to the children that in this context the word is a slang intensifier and not a derogatory adjective.
Setting the scene
You may like to share Jeannie Baker’s Window to help children to understand the framed view of the world that Joe experiences.
Spend 5 minutes looking out of a window at school (or ask the children to do this at home (this will be more effective in urban settings). What can they see? What can’t they see? How do they feel after 5 minutes?
This activity can be extended once we have been introduced to Henry. Share some images of Philadelphia with your group. This virtual tour is ideal. Now read p.18. What can Henry see of Philadelphia? You can also revisit this activity later in the story when Joe starts receiving letters from Hannah and she describes what she can see through her window (chapter 18).
After reading chapter 2
It is important to establish a sense of time and place - what have we be told about the room? Consider all the senses - what can Joe see, feel, hear?
Share your findings as a group - write down the main points on separate pieces of paper.
Sit together starting off in complete silence with eyes closed.
Visualise the hospital room. Slowly read out the descriptions of the room to your group:
e.g. the air is cold, the monitors beep, beep, beep, the white door closes, white suits, white window, the lights on the grey monitors flash red, the air-conditioning clicks in,the smell of coffee, the smell of soap, the phone buzzes, the laptop makes a da-lute sound.
Discuss the advantages and limitations of a closed setting e.g. action is limited, the action that does take place is under the microscope, the importance of detail.
What is the significance of stating Joe’s specific age and the room and body statistics repeatedly throughout the story. The story is Joe and his room. They are his whole world. Every change in digit is significant and can mean life or death.
Characterisation and Empathy
The intense focus on Joe’s thoughts and feelings provide a sense of seeing the world through his eyes. EmpathyLab have shared some very interesting research that demonstrates the response our brains have when reading emotive stories - it reacts as if we have experienced the actions within the story ourselves - thereby strengthening our skills to empathise with characters in stories and consequently people in society with different life experiences to our own.
Discuss emotions in the context of stories - have the children read books that have made them sad or angry? e.g. Charlotte’s Web, Matilda, Carrie’s War, Bridge to Terabithia, Sky Hawk, Katy
The story is largely character driven. Spending some time looking at the characters in more depth would increase understanding of motives and perspective and offer the opportunity to develop empathy skills..
Role on the wall - Joe
Draw an outline of a body to represent Joe on a large sheet of paper. Asking one member of the group to lie on a roll of lining paper works well. Annotate the character either by drawing directly on the outline using different coloured pens or attaching coloured post its. Add to the wall as you read through the story together.
How does Joe feel about his condition? his care? his sister? the death of his parents? Henry? The possibility of going outside? Use different coloured pens or post its and add to the figure as the story progresses. Include Joe’s feelings about control (he wishes he could control the numbers on the machines, he chooses his own clothes etc..)
Joe displays physical empathy. In fact he is hyper-empathetic - “whenever they stick a needle in Henry it feels like it’s going in to me”(p.19).In what other ways does he demonstrate his ability to understand and share the feelings of others - consider his reaction to Beth’s opportunity to move away and also his relationships with Greg and Amir.
Discover the different perspectives of the three characters who have significant influence on Joe’s life: Beth, Greg and Henry. Ask them how they feel about Joe’s condition; how it affects their life, what their hopes for the future are. Also ask questions specific to each character such as - why does Greg address all the children he cares for as ‘mate’ and not by their name? Ask Henry how he feels about going outside? What will be the first thing he does?
“Amir is mad. He’s crazy. But the hospital wouldn’t let a crazy person in. They must have interviewed him and checked his qualifications. But maybe he didn’t even meet them? Maybe he hasn’t even come from India. He might have arrived on an alien spaceship and snuck in here in the middle of the night.”
What are your first impressions of Amir? p.14
Why do think Amir is better at making Joe forget where he is? p.118
Role-play interview - useful to do after chapter 13
Ask one member of your group to take on the role of Amir. The other members can ask questions. Support Amir with his answers. Ask him what his plans are for taking Joe outside? Making the suit? Installing the screens. His views regarding aliens?
Joe dreams he is Spider-man, Thor and Ironman rolled into one. What would his powers be? Why isn’t one superhero enough? p.22 Read aloud Joe’s dream (Mjolnir - pronounced M'Yoll-near) and add to your ‘role on the wall’. Why does Joe have such extreme dreams? What do these dreams give him that his real life cannot? freedom, health, strength, the power to save those less fortunate than himself - a change of perspective.
A Virtual Life - pause for thought
How much time do you spend in the virtual world? games? internet? television? social media?
Joe lives his life through facebook, skype, television, DVDs, spotify and youtube. What does he say that he would like to do if he could go outside? - walk in the sun or the rain, go to the park, throw a frisbee for a dog. It brings to mind a famous quotation that children may have seen:"Enjoy the little things, for one day you may look back and realize they were the big things." Robert Brault (American author).
What’s the plot?
The main action in the stories doesn’t take place until the last third of the book. It would be useful to try predicting earlier on. Pose questions such as: What do you think Amir is going to do next? What do you think will happen to Henry?
Chapter 13 - A window to the world
Amir sets up the screens for Joe to watch Sky and also the hospital CCTV. What does this give Joe? Do you think it is more interesting to watch real people or fictional characters? How does it help Joe? - to escape into imagined worlds, to feel part of the wider community, to experience real life beyond the doors of his hospital room.
After appearing on television, Joe begins receiving letters. Read the letters aloud. Discuss the different ways people have reacted to seeing Joe’s situation. When Hannah writes to Joe in chapter 18, she finds it awkward and doesn't’ know what to say at first. Why do you think Joe prefers Hannah letters?
Imagine you were going to write to Joe.
What would you tell him about your life and what would you ask him?
The Greatest Show on Earth - chapter 21
Amir takes Joe to see the stars, a plane taking off and the sunrise. BEFORE reading this chapter ask the children what would be their top 3 experiences? - they may include experiences they have already had or those on their wish list. Likely examples may include: swim with a dolphin, play football at Wembley, go to Disneyland. It may be interesting to compare the children’s wishlist with the simplicity of Joe’s experiences and what they meant to him. Repeat the question AFTER reading this chapter. Encourage the children to consider simple pleasures - cook food on an open fire, walk under a waterfall, run through long grass, catch a snowflake in their tongue.
Henry tells Joe “we have to keep living, we have to keep hoping”.
Henry raises some big questions about life: How can we make the best of the life we’ve been given? If it’s awful, should we give up? Or should we struggle on, enjoying the small stuff of life as far as we can? What do you think Foster is trying to say with this story? What does this story say to you about life?
Revisit the tag line on the cover again: ‘Not all superheroes wear capes’. How is the tagline relevant to the story? Who is the hero - Joe? Amir?
All the Things That Could Go Wrong - Stewart Foster
The Goldfish Boy - Lisa Thompson
Wonder - RJ Palacio
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime - Mark Haddon
Not As We Know It and My Brother’s Shadow - Tom Avery
Fuzzy Mud - Louis Sachar