The Terrible Thing that Happened to Barnaby Brocket discussion guide

Title:  The Terrible Thing that Happened to Barnaby Brocket        

 The Author: John Boyne

John Boyne was born in Ireland in 1971 and is the author of six novels for adults. His first novel for children, The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, won two Irish Book Awards, was shortlisted for the British Book Award and has been made into a film. His novels are published in over 40 languages.

The Illustrator: Oliver Jeffers

As a picture book creator Oliver Jeffers has been the recipient of some of children's books highest accolades, including the Nestle Gold Medal for Lost and Found and the Irish Picture Book of the Year for The Incredible Book Eating Boy. Other award-winning titles include The Way Back Home, which was shortlisted for the Kate Greenaway medal. An animated film of Oliver's book Lost and Found won a BAFTA for Best Animation in 2009. Jeffers latest masterpiece with Sam Winston: A Child of Books is a must read for anyone who loves children’s books.


There’s nothing unusual about the Brockets. Boring, respectable and fiercely proud of it, Alistair and Eleanor Brocket turn up their noses at anyone strange or different. But from the moment Barnaby Brocket comes into the world, it’s clear he’s anything but normal. To the horror and shame of his parents, Barnaby appears to defy the laws of gravity – and floats.

Little Barnaby is a lonely child – after all, it’s hard to make friends when you’re ten feet in the air. Desperate to please his parents, he does his best to stop floating, but he just can’t do it. Then, one fateful day, Barnaby’s mother decides enough is enough. She never asked for a weird, abnormal, floating child. She’s sick and tired of the newspapers prying and the neighbours gossiping. Barnaby has to go . . .Betrayed, frightened and alone, Barnaby floats into the path of a very special hot air balloon. And so begins a magical journey around the world; from South America to New York, Canada to Ireland, and even a trip into space, Barnaby meets a cast of truly extraordinary new friends and realises that nothing can make you happier than just being yourself. 

Weblinks: Book trailer John Boyne interview Drawing and style tip videos from the illustrator

Discussion Points

Before Reading:

  • Discuss the cover illustration and the title - at this point what do the children think might be the ‘terrible thing’. This can be a wider discussion of what terrible things could happen to a little boy? He has to move away from his friends? He is sent to live with an unforgiving relative or to a badly run boarding school? Maybe an accident? A life-changing experience for him or a member of his family? An illness?
  •  Share the book trailer to introduce the story - see weblinks
  •  Have a discussion about what 'normal' means? Is it the same thing as 'ordinary'? Do we use the words interchangeably? Is there such a thing as a ‘normal’ family?
  • It is important to differentiate between what is commonplace and what is ‘normal’. What is ‘normal’ for one person may be completely alien to another. This question can be re-visited throughout reading the story.

During Reading:

Around the World.

The story begins in Sydney, Australia. Using an enlarged map of the world track Barnaby’s journey from Mrs Macquarie's Chair in Sydney Harbour to Brazil to New York to Dublin to Africa to Toronto and back to Sydney. Alistair Brocket has never left Australia and declares normal people shouldn’t want to see the world. What is the advantage of travelling, experiencing different cultures and meeting people with a different life experience?

Role on the Wall

Barnaby goes on an incredible journey through the story. At the outset draw an outline of a body to represent Barnaby 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.

  • Write words inside the body to represent Barnaby’s feelings
  • Write words inside the head to represent what Barnaby is thinking
  • Write words near to his hands and feet to represent actions
  • Choose some words that Barnaby says and write them in speech bubbles. You could also add speech bubbles around the edge coming from different directions with direct speech from the other characters in the story.

Be certain to include Barnaby’s feelings when he is attached to Sydney Harbour Bridge along with all his classmates. How does he react to the comment “You’re just like the rest of us now.”

Repeat this activity towards the end of the story. In what ways has Barnaby changed? In what ways is he the same?

Meet the Brockets - a ‘perfectly normal family’

Discuss stories the children already know in which the main character is in some way different to the rest of their family: e,g, Matilda, Harry Potter (the Dursleys), Emily Vole The Fairy Detective Agency series, Percy Jackson.

When Alistair Brocket introduces Barnaby to his siblings he refers to his floating as ..”his foolishness’ as if he is doing it on purpose. He also describes his newborn son as ‘a guest’ in the Brocket household. We can see he is in denial of his son’s difference on page 30 when he says “...everyone will think there is something wrong with him.”

Barnaby’s mother’s reaction is even more disturbing. She is ashamed and mortified at what the neighbours will think. Her treatment of Barnaby is inhuman: tethering him to the washing line and taking him for a walk with a dog collar and lead. Jeffers’ illustration ‘Walking the Dog’ is worthy of discussion at this point. Note the position of Barnaby in relation to both his mother and the dog, her disguise and posture.

Her final threat “Either you become normal or...or...we will put an end to your selfishness ourselves, once and for all.” p.65 shows her complete inability to accept her son for who he is.

In contrast Barnaby is completely forgiving and suggests that his mother’s behaviour is due to her unfamiliarity with floating. She has never met anyone who floats before.

  • Is this true to life?
  • Are people afraid of the unknown?
  • Do they react in bizarre ways to things that they don’t understand or are afraid of?
  • There are many examples throughout history. Can your group think of any from the past or the present day?

Chapter 3 Finding a cure

Chapter 3 offers a bizarre array of possible cures for Barnaby’s floating. His father has already suggested ignoring it. The doctors prescribes a couple of pills, the specialist a course of antibiotics and the consultant suggests it is a phase that will be grown out of. Why are these ideas so ridiculous?

Does Barnaby need a  'cure'?

Why do you think Boyne chose defying gravity as Barnaby’s ‘abnormality’? Is it for  for comedic effect because it is so far fetched? Is it  a safe option because it won't offend anyone as it might have done if the 'abnormality' was more realistic?  Alistair Brocket is described as keeping his feet “firmly on the ground” p.29. Could the floating be a metaphor for people who aren’t afraid to dream, to reach for the clouds, to use their imagination, to soar above the ground?

Author’s voice

Notably the author addresses the reader directly in a ‘matter of fact’ conversational style. This provides a believable scenario with often humourous effect for such an unbelievable and, in reality, horrific plot. Read chapter 6 aloud expressively, building the tension and relaying the horror of the ‘terrible thing’.

  • What are the children's initial reactions to what has happened?
  • What do they think Barnaby should do?
  • You could stage a mini-debate ‘Should he stay or should he go?’ Give three reasons for each. This exercise could be repeated towards the end of the story.


Literary links

There are many references to the canon of children’s literature throughout the story. Can the children spot them? Treasure Island and Heidi p.15, Kidnapped p.51, The Three Musketeers p.54, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes p.111.

  • Why does Barnaby like to read and escape into stories?

He loves to feed his imagination. When he has been in Brazil for a few days and Palmira gives him a book he is delighted: “He hadn’t read anything in a week and he was worried his imagination was going to close down for good.”p.111

Most significant is the mention of Barnaby’s library of ‘orphan stories’ and his purchase of  Dickens almost autobiographical David Copperfield, that is on his mind throughout his journey home. 

  • In what ways do you think Barnaby relates to the eponymous character?

Postcards home

Read the postcards on pages 113/141 and 179

  • What does Barnaby include and what does he leave out?
  • What does the content of these postcards say about Barnaby and how he feels about what has happened to him?


Being different

There are two examples of separating people with ‘differences’ en masse (The Graveling Academy for Unwanted Children and Freakitude) both of which fail.

Should people with differences be segregated or integrated and celebrated in our society?

You may wish to discuss the definition of the word ‘freak’ as representing an abnormality in situation or person and how it can be a highly offensive term. It may be pertinent if children in your group enjoy browsing Ripley’s Believe it or Not to discuss the feelings of those represented with abnormalities and how they should be referred to and discussed respectfully. You might look at the similarities between Ripley's and the Victorian Freak Show. Have we really made progress?

After reading

Illustration selection

Re-visit Oliver Jeffers’ whole page illustrations to recap the story. Explain that when an illustrator receives the text of a story they have to make choices as to which parts of the plot to illustrate. Why are these parts the most significant? For example ‘Meeting Liam’. Liam has some interesting insight to offer the ‘being different’ theme. He declares he has never known any different so to him not having hands IS normal.

Re-visiting ‘What is normal?’

Start by looking at Alistair Brocket’s exasperation on p.64 “All I ever wanted was to live a normal life, with a normal family and normal children. And then you came along and ruined everything.”

This statement can be applied to the relatives of the other characters Barnaby meets on his epic journey around the globe. They have all been disowned by their families because they are not "normal". Despite which they are, variously, loved, brave, generous, talented and happy.

page 92: "Just because your version of normal isn't the same as someone else's version doesn't mean that there's anything wrong with you" (Marjorie)

A wonderful opportunity to introduce your group to the insightful musings of Oscar Wilde:

“Be yourself, everyone else is already taken"

Further Reading:

Amber Lee Dodd We Are Giants

Floella Benjamin Coming to England

Jules Vernes Around the World in Eighty Days

The Real reads series offers an accessible format for classic tales

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