Tuesday, 18 November 2014

The Bubble Wrap Boy, by Phil Earle

The Bubble Wrap Boy is the story of vertically challenged Charlie Han, painfully uncool, thoroughly clumsy and resigned to the fact that he has close to a Full House on the “Racial Stereotypes” Bingo sheet. Living with a desperately overprotective mum and a silent chef father, Charlie struggles with gangs, bullies, ritual humiliation, constant disappointment and scorn on a daily basis and has nobody to talk to about it. Apart from his companion in lonely weirdness Linus, AKA Sinus due to his immense nose. Thrown together by their mutual friendlessness, Charlie is unfortunately quite dismissive of Linus, believing he deserves a higher calibre of friend. When Charlie discovers his passion, his one talent in life is Skateboarding, he neglects Linus in favour of his new hobby. His new hobby that would send his mother through the roof if she ever found out about it.

Charlie is just such a brilliant character; hopelessly uncool, unduly optimistic about suddenly becoming cool, resolute, caring and hugely stubborn. I really felt like I understood Charlie- his mixture of anger and guilt and love is on the one hand quite typical of teens, but it also singles Charlie out as being quite unique in the way that he deals with these emotions. He has been lied to by people that he trusts, he’s angry, but he has his own secrets too so it’s not as if he can legitimately claim the moral high ground. He has the ammunition to cause his mother a world of emotional pain and chooses not to. He keeps both of their secrets to save his family from getting hurt.

I really liked too how Charlie begrudgingly learned his lessons as he went along, even though they were painful or inconvenient. He learns when to get mad and when to stay quiet. The value of true friendship versus the fickle promise of popularity. The fact that you have to work hard to reap the rewards of anything. That sometimes you don’t have to be the best. That it’s not until you’ve won approval that you realise it’s of very little value. That adults do strange and inexplicable things for reasons only understood by themselves.

This book does a brilliant job of rationalising adult behaviour that seems to baffle teens. It gives reasons, however unsatisfying or misguided, for the things that grownups do. Sometimes it’s the wrong thing done for the right reasons but it shows too that adults might not always be able to explain their behaviour. It shows that these mysterious creatures are people too.

It’s emotional and heart wrenching at the same time as being hilariously funny. Charlie’s brush with death during his brief foray into amateur dramatics had me in stitches, and his brilliant internal monologue is so full of personality. Sometimes he’s seething, sometimes he’s
overflowing with empathy. It’s a joy to read because in many ways it is such an ordinary story- families, secrets and unfulfilment and guilt are all very ordinary themes. It’s just told in such a way that the reader can’t help but become caught up in Charlie’s complicated family and his clashing emotions.

My only gripe with the book is the Penguin cover. It’s ok for the cover to show Charlie as being Oriental in appearance! I can’t remember the last time I read any book where the protagonist was British Chinese. In fact I don’t think I have read another one at all. That should be celebrated and evident, rather than limited to the text. Charlie just happens to be born to Chinese parents. It’s not particularly integral to the plot, it’s just who he is! This is exactly kind of circumstantial diversity that needs to become the norm. Even if one day there are fictional armies of diverse and representative characters, what's the point if we’re just going to illustrate them as all looking the same?

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