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The Bulletin
of the Center for Children's Books

The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

by Frank Cottrell Boyce

Size does indeed matter, as Liam knows: he’s so tall for his age that at twelve he’s regularly being mistaken for a grownup (the Premature Facial Hair helps as well).  Since he’s a clever lad (“He’s in Gifted and Talented,” his father proudly notes), he can’t resist taking advantage of the opportunities provided by such misunderstandings, and he’s had some amusing capers with his classmate, Florida, as she pretends to be his daughter. Those escapades have been fairly harmless, well within the reach of Liam’s parents’ disciplinary range—until now. The electronics magnate and scientist Dr. Drax has invited four dads and their children on a special outing, and Liam knows that the only way he can pull off inclusion is to once again feign being Florida’s dad. It’s exciting enough that they’re whisked off to China, but Liam is thrilled beyond belief to discover their ultimate goal: space. The dads and kids go through intensive short-term training, Liam is selected as the lucky “father” who gets to accompany the youngsters into space, and off they go for what’s supposed to be a quick, simple jaunt into orbit—but becomes something very different.

While there’s clearly a science-fiction element to the story (“I’d always wanted to see the world. And now I was—all in one go,” says Liam as he looks back at his home planet), British author Cottrell Boyce, as he did previously in Millions (BCCB 7/04) and Framed (BCCB 10/08), firmly grounds his fanciful concept in absolutely authentic reality. The space-travel prep is detailed and factual, the private rocket believable and attainable; the inclusion of a project assistant who proves to be former Apollo astronaut Alan Bean enhances the verisimilitude. The group’s lurch out of orbit and into possible disaster is nerve-wracking, but the book turns it into a poetic exploration of human possibility as well as a thrilling adventure.

It’s Liam as center that makes it all work. His voice is easygoing and plaintive, realistically kid-inquisitive and kid-heedless, but he’s got enough perspective to see the limitations of the three other fathers (one’s all about winning, one’s all about money, one’s all about smarts). And it’s his dual status as both child and, functionally if not actually, father that enables the book to expand beyond science-fiction adventure into something humanly cosmic. The book has touches of the movie Big and of Roald Dahl’s championing of children over corrupt adults (Dahl even gets name-checked via a stage production of The BFG), but this isn’t simply a valorization of childhood. In fact, it’s rather a paean to the wonderfulness of good dadhood, as Liam takes his “dadliness” with increasing seriousness (though there’s plenty of humor in his observations about the folly of the kids and his research in a little volume entitled Talk to Your Teenager) and begins to realize that his own father’s loyalty and support may not be the norm he’d assumed. It’s therefore truly poignant that in Liam’s dadliest moment, when he’s enabling the kids’ explorationwhile running support himself, that a phone call from his father (who thinks Liam’s on a class trip in the Lake District) comes through: “Doesn’t matter how far it is. I’m your dad. If you want me to pick you up, just say so.”

A story of human possibility with a lot of adventure, or an adventure with full credit given to human possibility? Either way, it’s a fantastic, funny, and moving novel, for both those dreaming of the stars and those firmly rooted to the ground. After last year’s Apollo 11 celebration, this is a commemoration of a different sort: one that gives full credit to those who lift up as well as those who reach the sky, and that celebrates not only the spirit of exploration but the human connectedness that allows it to flower.

Deborah Stevenson, Editor



Cover image from Cosmic ©2010 by Bill Mayer. Used by permission of Walden Pond/HarperCollins Publishers.

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This page was last updated on February 1, 2010.