Phil Earle has written four books for young adults, of which only one (Heroic) I had read before I tackled his new story, The Bubble Wrap Boy. I loved Heroic (my review of it is here), and you might remember it’s a hard-hitting story about a young man’s experience of having his soldier brother return from the savagery of a war zone, interspersed with his own hardships which centre on his strained and impoverished home life.
Well, The Bubble Wrap Boy is not like that at all.
The Bubble Wrap Boy is the story of Charlie Han, a teenage boy who lives with his mum and dad above their Chinese takeaway. He is short in stature and he struggles with the practical difficulties of this, as well as the bullying of his schoolmates; however, this is nothing compared with the overbearing, overprotective and suffocating presence of his mother. Mrs Han makes her son wear goggles while decorating the Christmas tree (lest a pine needle carry his eyeball away), and she insists on putting a safety gate at the top of the stairs; of course, Charlie keeps forgetting that it’s there, and falling down the stairs as a result – which makes his mother even more unbearable. It’s touching, because the reader knows that all his mum wants to do is keep Charlie safe, but when we read about him doing deliveries on a trike he nicknames ‘the Rhino’ because it’s almost too heavy to move, while wearing layers of protective and reflective clothing and enough lights to distract passing aircraft, it’s not hard to feel sorry for him. Charlie’s dad is a quiet, seemingly downtrodden man who cares for little besides his woks and the family business, and Charlie’s mum – when she’s not being overbearing – is anxious, stressed and overtired from all the ‘evening classes’ she’s attending. Charlie notices that she never seems to gain any certificates or awards from all these classes, though, and wonders what the truth is.
But, because he’s a teenager with a lot on his own plate, he lets a lot of stuff (like his concerns for his mum) slide, and he sometimes comes across as rather self-obsessed. This isn’t a fault of Earle’s writing: I recognised my own teenage self in his words. It’s exactly right for the character.
One day, while making a delivery of his dad’s Chinese food, Charlie sees a kid on a skateboard doing some tricks with a bench, and he’s immediately transfixed. He realises, as he watches, that he’s finally found exactly what it is he wants to do – but how on earth is he going to convince his ultra-careful mother that skidding around on a wheeled board flinging yourself off pieces of street furniture is ‘safe’? He can’t, of course. So, he conspires to do it without her knowledge. With the help of his friend Sinus (who has an overlarge nose and the unfortunate first name of ‘Linus’), he concocts a plan to become a skateboarding superstar.
But his mother, and her secret life – the one that gives her dark circles under her eyes and makes her look more and more ground down as the days go by – get in the way of his dream before too long.
There is, of course, a reason why Charlie’s mother is so overprotective of him – and it has nothing to do with his short stature, and everything to do with Mrs Han’s own childhood and a traumatic event which happened during her early teens. Accidentally, Charlie stumbles upon a clue to the fact that his mother is more than she appears, and in the course of his investigation he uncovers a secret at the heart of his family, a secret so huge Charlie can’t believe that his parents have kept it from him all his life.
I enjoyed this book, and a large part of my enjoyment was the fact that parts of it are very funny. The relationship between Charlie and Sinus is filled with hilarious dialogue (even though I feel that Charlie treats Sinus very badly at several points, and Sinus shows great forbearance by putting up with it), and Charlie is a layered, nuanced character – there was plenty about him that I didn’t like, as well as things I thought were great. This made him real and believable. Sinus was a great character, too, though the way he’s described made me think of him as a talking nose, which was unfortunate. I did think that Mr and Mrs Han had fallen into stereotype (typical hardworking, demanding Chinese parents), but there are reasons behind Mr Han’s silence and Mrs Han’s neurotic behaviour, and that lifted them into a new dimension.
The only thing I didn’t like about this book was the way it dealt with girls. There are plenty of female characters, all adults, who add immeasurable depth to the story, but girls of Charlie’s and Sinus’ own age are nothing but fragrant, delicate ‘things’ which decorate their eyelines and remain as unattainable objects. They are idealised as rewards for being ‘cool’ – Charlie imagines Sinus with armfuls of girls fawning over him when his (Sinus’) own secret is revealed – and none of them are depicted as skateboarders, or even being welcome in the skatepark. Perhaps there were girl board-riders, but we never hear about them. The only girl to come anywhere near Charlie is Carly Stoneham, at the start of the book, who berates him after Charlie’s clumsiness causes an accident. She is shrill and unreasonable, as is the female teacher who makes Charlie clean up the accident without asking if he’s all right, or listening to his side of events. That, I have to admit, annoyed me just a little.
Incidentally, this book is Phil Earle’s fourth published novel, but – as he explains in the notes at the end – it was actually the first story he wrote, though it has changed a lot since its earliest days. That gave me a lot of encouragement, and I think it should do the same for anyone who wants to write. It’s not necessarily your first book which will ‘make’ it, but there will be time for all your ideas to emerge over the course of your career.
The Bubble Wrap Boy was a solid, well-written book with an intriguing set of characters who breathe new life into the old ‘underdog’s struggle to succeed’ story, and an emotional heart beneath it all. I’d recommend it, and I’m looking forward to seeing what Phil Earle does next.