Saturday, January 9, 2016

The Astounding Broccoli Boy by Frank Cottrell Boyce

Don your cape and soar into this smart, well-written book that parodies and deconstructs the superhero trope. While some will think it a blast to read, others will want it Gamma Bombed. It's silly, cartoonish, and a bit like watching the "Laurel and Hardy" TV show - two people acting stupid over and over and over again - only these two are fifth graders, Rory Rooney and his nemesis, Grim (aka Tommy-Lee). But beneath the humor are layers of deeper themes as Rory learns to deal with bullying, friendship, and self-confidence while being surrounded by inept adults. Plenty of archetypes and wackiness. Rocket launch your realistic side to Mars and have fun with this one.

Rory is being bullied by Grim and his minions at school. After he is pushed into a river on a field trip he emerges from it with skin the color of broccoli. He finds himself as a medical subject study along with another "green boy" who happens to be Grim (aka Tommy-Lee). Rory decides he and Grim have superpowers because of the abundance of green superheroes in comics: Hulk, The Swamp Thing, The Green Hornet, Green Goblin -who isn't a hero but villain, but hey, this plot is not only about heroes but villains too. Going from powerless to "super" he thinks that he can slightly teleport and his brain operates at 200% while Grim can break any security code while sleepwalking. Rory feels empowered by his physical change and convinces Grim that they can work for Good. He stops calling him Grim in his first step toward a bully-free life.

While Rory declares the two will use their superpowers for Good, he's not sure Tommy-Lee knows the definition of good. His fears are realized as their powers plunge the city into chaos as they sneak out at night from the hospital where they are imprisoned test subjects and pull pranks. As Rory has a hey-ho time with his escapades, he starts to waffle toward thinking of the duo as villains. Tommy-Lee thinks they are doing good so he wants to rob a bank. Yes, his definition is a bit messed but he's so dumb he thinks a night club is a bank and their robbery is quite creative. The author ka-pows! with plot twists. Next adventure has Tommy-Lee sleepwalking and the two getting into some shenanigans at the London Zoo. Last adventure they meet a green girl who changes the dynamic of their relationship.  One adventure after another leads to green pickled messes that make for a terrific and unpredictable plot.

The author pays tribute to comic book superheroes while poking fun at it too. ""But there's more than one kind of hero. There are heroes with shocking great muscles who can stop a speeding train with their bare hands... But there are also skinny little heroes who destroy big bullies using only their superior intelligence and cunning." This is where Frank Cottrell Boyce deconstructs the superhero trope. Comics have suffered historically as being male-dominated with stereotyped women and men of muscle. Here the hero comes in the form of the puniest kid in the grade, a bully that hides his fears, and a girl that wants to run the world. The shifting between the characters between being good and bad makes them more real and interesting as the story progresses.

The character development focuses mainly on Rory and Tommy-Lee, but the archetypes are funny as well. The nurse watching over them eats different kinds of chocolate every night as she watches them in what Rory calls, "The Fish Tank." They are locked in a glass room with Nurse Rock (as they call her) just outside. "What kind of person can't settle on a favorite type of chocolate? A 100 percent untrustworthy kind of person, that's what." After the two break out at night and explore London, the nurse can smell chocolate on Rory that they'd been eating. Rory calls her a bloodhound.

Tommy-Lee has anger management issues. His parents don't visit him. Nor do Rory's. Or so it seems.  Another pretzel in the plot for you to eat up. The trio use a window washing cage instead of the elevator because "superheroes do not use the lift." Again, the poking fun at superhero tropes makes this fun. The three green children decide that if everyone in the world was green there would be no people fighting over who thinks they are better than others. Yep, I'm for team green.

Rory's character arc shows him learning what a real hero means and that it is the same as being a good friend that knows when to do the right thing. When Tommy-Lee gets in a tight spot, Rory has to decide whether or not he will help him or walk away. All three have weaknesses and strengths that they face throughout the plot and it gives them more depth of character.

Everyone reacts in the wrong way to Rory from students to adults. It is so absurd that I couldn't help laughing. It was constant and reminded me of the book, The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom. Although that one is nonstop gags on fairy tales not superheroes. From the nurse checking in Rory at the hospital, to his hypochondriac mother and odd family, to the boys coming up with superhero names, be ready to laugh. This book pokes fun at nurses, doctors, parents, politicians, etc. The nurse grabs Rory's hand and says she needs blood. "This won't hurt," She said, grabbing my thumb and jabbing it with a needle. She squeezed blood out into a test tube. It really, really hurt. "I lie" - she smiled - "a lot. But always for your own good." How often have you heard that at the doctor's office? Everyone is convinced, including Rory's parents that he turned green on purpose. When he is bullied, it is his fault. He's blamed for everything and anything to such an extreme it adds to the absurd comedy.

Humor is not easy to pull off. When it falls flat, it splats. The author mixes comedy and realism with great word choices that kept me flipping the pages. He describes Tommy-Lee's sleepwalking, "Then he gave a snore that sounded like a tiger gargling treacle. Then he rolled over. Plonked his feet on the floor. Stood up and started to do the Spooky Playmobil. I followed him..." Did I mention that the city is under high alert from a Killer Kittens virus plague? Silliness blasts off from the get-go.

When Rory and Tommy-Lee meet Koko Kwok, things get interesting. When I was growing up comics were male-dominated with dippy women in them. Now there is more diversity and women can be their own superheroes. Once Koko enters the plot it shows that she's the brains of the "Laurel & Hardy" show and Tommy-Lee does whatever she asks and never bullies her. She develops a catchphrase for them, "Green is for Go!" The trio even picks-up a couple of penguins on their adventures in a nod to Batman comics. Enjoy this one. Super astounding.

5 Smileys

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