The Great Escape

The Barnabus Project – by the Fan Brothers with Devin Fan (Terry, Eric, and Devin Fan), Tundra Books, 2020

Imagine a small mutant animal, imprisoned in an underground lab which is the only home he has ever known.  Life is not bad; his bell jar is easy to maintain and he receives regular meals of cheese and peanuts delivered by the Green Rubber Suits. His friends are all similarly trapped and equally provided with the necessities of life. 

One day Barnabus, half mouse and half elephant, starts to think.  Once creatures recognize that they are not free, there is no turning back.  Encouraged by stories from Pip the cockroach about the world above the lab, Barnabus decides to liberate himself and his friends.  Part adventure, part parable, and totally evocative work of art, the Fan Brothers’ new book is unforgettable in its originality. 

Children are sensitive to the idea of imperfection. Maybe a toy is broken, but still beloved.  Maybe they don’t always seen to fit in themselves; like Barnabus, they might enjoy security by long for freedom.  Part of the appeal of this book is that Barnabus and his equally quirky companions are vulnerable, but not pathetic.  The illustrations evoke dreams, both good and bad, fantastic fiction and classic works of children’s literature. 

There is a sense of balance as carefully planned and achieved as the animals’ escape from their controlled environment and exodus to a world of freedom. A nighttime city skyline in dark blue and gray or backlit with sun in the daytime alternate with images of the creatures themselves, encased in glass on shelves or emerging from broken glass and experimenting with freedom.

Who are these strange beings? They are “Failed Projects,” a collection of factory seconds doomed to the life of lab rats as the Green Rubber Suits use them to come up with something better, something lucrative, the Perfect Pets sold to lucky kids in toy stores. Since children know that they might initially prefer these heavily promoted items, with “fur like cotton candy” and vacant eyes, they will relate to the idea that the Failed Projects face a dismal future.  But in the end, defective or oddball toys might be the ones that stick around: Mushroom Sloth, Pinto, Spike, the Bottle Mogs, Stick One and Stick Two all have names right out of child’s imagination. But first, they have to prove themselves in a courageous fight against the forces of evil, before they find a haven in “a place that might be home.” It’s not just a story; it’s a project. The Barnabus Project asks kids to participate in knocking off chains and celebrating what it means to be different, wanted, and free.

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