Scribbleboy – Philip Ridley
I seem to be on a nostalgia kick lately. There’s my Harry Potter re-reading project. I just did a post about some of the dinosaur-themed media I enjoyed at a young age. And in the past week, I downloaded the audiobook of a children’s novel I haven’t read in many years – Scribbleboy. It was published in 1997, and I know I first got it from the school library, though I can’t quite remember if it was late primary school or early high school – but Scribbleboy, and the Freaky Facts Club books by Paul Zindel, were among the books I re-read most at that time.
Eleven-year-old Bailey Silk has just moved into a new flat in a grey, neglected neighbourhood. He’s a lonely boy, with only his dad and older brother for company, his mum having walked out on the family two months prior. As the story begins, however, Bailey gets an invitation to join the Scribbleboy Fan Club. It transpires that dotted around the neighbourhood are beautiful patches of colourful graffiti known as Scribbles: years earlier, a mysterious figure known only as Scribbleboy used to paint these Scribbles everywhere, before he inexplicably disappeared. Given a chance for both friendship and hope, Bailey is irresistibly drawn into the Scribbleboy Fan Club, even more so as changes take place at home which he doesn’t like at all.
Scribbleboy isn’t a long book – the audiobook is just four hours, less than half the length of the audiobook for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – but it manages to pack an awful lot into a relatively short space, in terms of story and emotional exploration. It does the same in terms of internal time: the main events take place over the course of one week, and so much happens in that week that you can’t blame poor Bailey for struggling to keep up. Admittedly, the prose may be a bit dated for children nowadays as the style is very, very Nineties: there’s as much slang as in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, such as Bailey and his friends declaring things to be ‘totally-ultra-mega Scribbledacious!’ (Yes, Scribbleboy fans have their own special vocabulary too.)
While it’s not outright fantasy, the world presented in the story isn’t quite our own. The quirks of the various characters, and other elements, are exaggerated. Not many children in real life have a father who refers to his children as ‘Trooper One’ and ‘Trooper Two’ and spends all his time in a mish-mash of fancy dress clothes based on different militaries. (Bailey’s father, it should be noted, has no actual military background as far as we are aware – this is not portrayed as healthy behaviour.) Not many would be so overwhelmed by a piece of graffiti that they faint, either. And I doubt it’s really possible to determine someone’s ideal ice cream flavour by feeling their pulse, temperature and tongue. Yet what struck me most listening to the story now is that among this eccentricity, the emotions explored in the story – specifically Bailey’s – feel very real for an eleven-year-old. His feelings about his mum leaving are highly mixed: he’s angry at her one minute and crying the next. When he learns about Scribbleboy, he clings to this fantasy like a security blanket, seeking hope from it and placing focus on work for the fan club. And as things start changing in his family life – normal and even healthy changes from an outside perspective, but still things that he never expected or asked for and that nobody else really considers his opinion about – he seeks refuge in the world of Scribbleboy, wanting to shut out the real world altogether.
It was nice to experience Scribbleboy again, and I’d like to think children today would still enjoy it despite my previous comment about the prose. Indeed, I would call it totally-ultra-mega-Scribblefabulous! Rating: 5/5!