Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Noah Barleywater runs away.

Our latest book ‘Noah Barleywater runs away’ by John Boyne, tells the story of a boy coming to terms with his mother’s terminal illness. He runs away and finds himself on a fantastical journey, where trees and dogs talk. He enters a magical toy shop where the owner reveals much about life and love and death, and helps Noah decide to return home.

I completed reading the book at the same time as I was involved in devising a piece of labyrinth theatre at ‘The People’s History Museum’. Fired up by my latest experience, it seemed obvious that this book would make the perfect labyrinth. The challenge was how to make and perform this in our 1 hour session.....
To assist with the process I sent each family the following homework.

I would like each child to think about any event or moment in the book that sticks in their imagination. Could they describe that moment to a blindfolded person by simply handing them something to touch, smell, taste, or by making sounds? For example, early on in the story Noah plucks 3 apples from a tree, and takes a bite from one. I might offer the person in the blindfold a juicy apple to smell, and feel, and taste, to illustrate this moment from the story. 

In the session I followed a simple plan. We warmed up by playing some games encouraging us to coordinate our actions, then we played a sort of ‘blind man’s bluff’ where we sampled our sensory ideas brought in from home (these were brilliant and thoughtful), and learnt how to guide someone in a blindfold through a space. We ran out of time here, but the enthusiasm for the game was very exciting, and it helped us ‘write’ the labyrinth. A couple of themes dominated, so we grouped people accordingly, and then we linked the groups with smaller narrative details, and we had our journey.

A quick run through and we were ready to perform.

The journey went like this:

The blindfold person enters the space, led gently.
There is the sound of feet on gravel.
He is brought to rest and given an apple.
The journey continues.
There is the sound of someone reading a newspaper.
He is brought to rest.
There is the sound of birdsong, and a rippling stream.
He is offered tree branches, which appear and disappear as he gropes for them.
He continues his journey and is followed by the musical sounds of a funfair.
The sounds fade away.
An energetic dachshund leaps at him, playfully rubbing against him, while panting and ‘woofing’.
He is brought to rest and seated.
There is the sound of mechanical things whirring and ticking, the ‘clack’ of wood, a smooth wooden toy car to hold and play with.
Mysterious voices, muttering about the ‘unusual stranger’.
A bell interrupts the scene, and he is led away.
Brought to rest, he is given a box. After investigation, he open's the box, and discovers a medal on a ribbon inside.
The box is replaced with an apple, and he is led through a door, returned to home, and the beginning of his journey.

This was a really creative session. The children devised a wonderful journey, and took the responsibility  of caring for the person experiencing the labyrinth really seriously. The parents who took the journey into the labyrinth enjoyed it, and were delightfully cooperative and playful participants.
As a means of exploring a story this technique has loads of potential....


At the beginning of each meeting I ask the older group to award marks out of 10 for the book under discussion. The highest award for Kai-ro was 7/10, the lowest, 3/10. This was an indication that there were no real passions about this book, one way or the other.

We picked apart those responses a little further, and found disappointment, and a lack of empathy.

The disappointment came from the moment the Egyptian God's were introduced into the storyline. The opening chapters succeeded in creating suspense, in a vividly described post apocalyptic world. We were gripped by the plight of Stretch, searching for his father, in this cruel place, where survival is hard, and danger is real. And then it got a bit weird.

Even for those who were carried along by the plot, there emerged a lack of empathy with the main character which we felt may have been a major factor in the book receiving this lukewarm response. As the character became dominated by the God who inhabited his head, his actions became more those of the God, and he became unlikeable. For all but one of the group this was very problematic.

And once again, as the book headed towards its final chapter it was apparent that the main crisis of the opening pages, the disappearance of Stretch's father, was to remain open, unresolved. Did the group think this was open ended as stories often are, for them to write their own outcome? No. In their view this was an opportunity for a sequel. Groans all round.

Note to Publishers: We don't like sequels.