Close your eyes. Lean back. Take a breath. Now think. Think about the books you read when you were a child. Think about the ones you loved. The ones you still think about sometimes. The ones that encouraged you to consider the world around you.
Got them in your head? Great. Now just pluck out for me the ones that took place in outer space. Go on. I can wait.
What’s that? You can’t think of any significant children’s books that took place in space? Would The Little Prince count? I guess so, but that’s not really the kind of space I mean. I’m talking about real space. The kind we blasted into in the 1960s and then never returned to. Where are the books about kids in space that have remained within the public consciousness? Fact of the matter is, there aren’t any. Oh, there are tons of books where kids go to space, sure. But how many of them are classics? How many of them are memorable? How many could you tell to the person on the street and get a spark of recognition in return? For now, none. But let me call you back in fifteen years and maybe your answer will be different. Because by then Cosmic by Frank Cottrell Boyce should hopefully have found its readership. And if it has, we’re one step closer to having a space-based chapter book that everyone can enjoy.
What happens when a twelve-year-old boy goes through such a growth spurt that he looks like he’s thirty? Well, in the case of Liam, inadvertent space travel. All right. Maybe not all that inadvertent. Liam’s a pretty good kid, but looking like a grown-up has gotten him into sticky situations. There was the time he was the only kid tall enough to ride the roller coaster, which in turn led to him getting free rides (and freaking out his dad). The time he almost got away with driving a car out of a dealership. And then there was the time he found himself on a rocket hurtling through space without knowing how to get it back. That sort of brings us up to speed because when the novel opens, that’s where Liam still is. He sort of won a contest for the world’s greatest dads and conned his classmate Florida into pretending to be his daughter. And then they sort of got flown to China where she was going to be one of the first kids to go to outer space. And then he kind of sort of won a competition to be the legal guardian that went along with the kids. Only now something has gone wrong and Liam’s finding that being the “sensible adult” is a lot harder when you want to scream and yell and run around like all the other kids freaking out around you. Instead, it’s up to him to get them safely home. Big job. Big kid.
Consider one mister Frank Cottrell Boyce. Here we have a man who has written books like Millions and Framed. He’s sort of a one-namer writer. And his shtick, as I see it, is to write books that star boys, have high-concept ideas, are laugh-on-the-subway-and-get-strange-looks funny, and then also make you think about life, death, the universe, and everything in it. Millions paired boys finding two duffle bags full of money with questions about God and Jesus. Cosmic, for its part, pairs the story of a twelve-year-old who looks thirty with ample consideration of the eye of infinity and our place in the universe. Put that in your pipe and smoke it. This then is a book that’s amusing for all kids, but will make some of them consider the big picture as well.
Now admittedly, I wasn’t hooked on Cosmic from the get go. The beginning was fun, but then Liam started to get into trouble and I was less amused by that. And about the time he was making a fool of himself in front of the real dads in China, I was positively embarrassed for him, and not sure I’d want to pick up the book again. But when Liam started competing with the other dads to become the one that went into space, I was hooked again. And after that the story just got more and more exciting. The multiple near death experiences didn’t hurt either.
After a while I realized that some of this book feels a bit like the movie Big. A kid gets a body of a grown man and suddenly the world is his oyster. The difference of course being that in Big the boy can go back to looking like a kid and in Cosmic Liam will just have to grow into his. It occurred to me after a while that adults reading this book would identify with it immediately. You find yourself in the body of a grown-up and everyone starts expecting you to act like a sensible human being with responsibilities? That’s my life every day! No wonder Liam eventually thinks to himself, “What’s the point in forfeiting your childhood if all you get for it is filling in forms?” So obviously grown-ups are going to relate to Liam, but would kids? Well, sure! Talk about the ultimate wish fulfillment. To live in the world and find yourself getting free rides at the amusement park, free car rides, and all the perks that go with the job . . . where’s the downside? Boyce shows the downside, but I don’t know how many kids will care. The fact that Liam’s a hoot to go along with (even when he’s being impossibly thick) was just a nice plus.
After all, Boyce is a funny writer. He knows how to craft a good line. Example A: “I don’t think the world has vanished. But it is worrying not being able to see it. After all, Earth is where I keep all my stuff.” When Liam’s dad tells him to get a friend who’s not an online companion his argument is, “You need a friend who is visible to the naked eye.” And Boyce is the master of funny (and always pertinent) chapter headings like “The Ice-Cream Man of the Gobi Desert”.
It’s also just a great book about dads and how important they are. Adults reading will understand pretty early on that Florida’s supposedly perfect father that she’s always comparing Liam to is just a figment of her imagination. In fact, fathers are sort of the most consistent theme of the book. Early on Liam comes to the conclusion that his dad only speaks on five separate topics of conversation. Then, when he finds himself a kind of pseudo-father, he steals his dad’s book on how to talk to teens, and finds himself in the old man’s shoes. Finally, even when he’s in the most trouble, Liam can’t help but think that his dad may still find him, even in the farthest reaches of space. It’s this childlike faith that keeps reminding you that for all his posturing, Liam’s really just a kid like the rest of them. And when Liam acts like a kid, it always makes sense. He doesn’t do it randomly. He just reacts to situations like a child would want to and the result is sometimes funny, sometimes disastrous. Which in turn makes his sacrifice at the end all the more impressive.
Some may feel that the book is too doggone English to appeal to American kids. I don’t. The Britishisms aren’t a problem, though I did have to look up what a satnav was. Ditto haribo. Not that they aren’t easy to look up, but you may scratch your head a little when you run across them. Still, kids today have grown up on a steady diet of Harry Potter. In nine out of ten occasions they’ll be able to parse what it means when Liam says of chips, “the moment they make contact with your tongue they stop being crisps and become soggies.” Honestly I worry more about the celebrity gossip repeated by Florida. I’d like this book to age gracefully, but its technological references and mentions that Tom Cruise’s teeth are completely false may make it difficult to peruse thirty years from now.
Interestingly, the book I pair this one with in my head is actually Moonshot by Brian Floca. Now, granted, Moonshot is a picture book and Cosmic is a wordy bit of fluffy genius, but the two share one significant thing in common. They have a good solid appreciation of that feeling of awe and fear we have sometimes when we gaze up at the moon. When Floca writes, “They go rushing into darkness, flying toward the Moon, far away, cold and quiet, no air, no life, but glowing in the sky,” how different is it from Boyce when he says, “The surface is white as paper and the shadows are sharp and definite” and later “The stars were getting just a bit dimmer. Like someone was drawing a curtain over them. But I knew what was behind the curtain now. Behind the curtain was everything, and I was nothing.” In both cases, the authors are dealing with a feeling that writers for centuries have grappled to put to paper: wonder. Wonder and awe. These are books that look into the blackness that surrounds the earth and presses upon us from all sides, and makes it manageable and comprehensible to young minds. They acknowledge the fear and they counter it with beauty.
Fifteen years from now, I like to think, I’ll meet you again. And I’ll tell you to close your eyes. I’ll tell you to lean back. I’ll tell you to take a breath and to think. Think about a book about kids in space that is memorable, classic, and in the pubic consciousness. And maybe, just maybe, your eyes will flutter open and you’ll shoot me a pitying look of mild disgust as you say sarcastically, “Uh, like ‘Cosmic’? Hello?” That’s what I’m shooting for right now. Because as novels for kids go, Boyce has managed to write one that’s just the right mixture of fun and philosophy. Kids will love it and grown-ups will love to read it with them. Doesn’t matter how tall or short you are, because Cosmic is for you.
On shelves January 19th.
Source: ARC sent from publisher.
First Lines: “Mom, Dad – if you’re listening – you know I said I was going to the South Lakeland Outdoor Activity Center with the school? To be completely honest, I’m not exactly in the Lake District. To be completely honest, I’m more sort of in space.”
Notes on the Cover: Meh. Meh and also, feh. Not terrible. Not terribly gripping. Still, I’d say it was loads better than the British, though you may respectfully disagree. Here are two version of that one:
- Big A little a
- Educating Alice
- OCD, Vampires, and Rants, oh my! (which cleverly mentions the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory aspect, that I forgot to put in my own review)
- My Brain on Books (ditto)
- Giraffe Days Book Reviews (ditto ditto)
- Nayu’s Reading Corner
- Never Jam Today
- Damian Daily
- Times Online
- The Guardian (Boyce is the father of seven?)
- Pubishers Weekly (starred review)
- There is now a Totally Cosmic Adventure at NASA Sweepstakes going on until February 23rd where “will receive an unforgettable interactive family experience as their personal guide escorts them on an exclusive two-day behind the scenes tour to see the real world of NASA at work.”
- Read an extract from the opening of the book here.
- Amanda Craig writes about Boyce and his book in The Times Online and draws some interesting parallels between his work and that of E. Nesbit.
- The book was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal as well as the Blue Peter Book Award and the Roald Dahl prize (which it did not win).
- And you can see some of it here:
This was created by the British publisher of the book, Macmillan.