The book is described as a fairy tale and I would agree. When you reach the final pages, you will realize that the story is the sensitively, retold tale of a wonderful, imaginary character from our childhood. The story is told with subtle humor and simple truths and the ending will surprise you.
It is about Noah Barleywater, a child who has to face problems that may be beyond his years. To escape from his fears, Noah decides to run away and have some adventures. After all, he is already 8 and has no major accomplishments to speak of, but in running away, he is also leaving his loved ones behind and is running from the problems in his life that he doesn’t want to face.
As he passes through successive towns, each with different magical experiences such as talking trees and animals, he is sometimes amazed and sometimes frightened. There are doors that move and speak, floors that shift and stairs that appear and disappear.
When Noah reaches a village with an unusual tree and an odd-looking house, his adventure really begins. He enters the strangely shaped house and discovers that it is a toy shop and suddenly, from out of nowhere, a gentle old man appears. He is the toymaker and he invites the very hungry Noah, to have some lunch. Soon, Noah spies a wooden chest filled with puppets, he asks the toymaker to explain what each one signifies. As the toymaker tells Noah the story of each puppet, we learn, through his memories, of the challenges he faced in life and how he dealt with them successfully in some cases, but in others he explains why he feels deep remorse for how things turned out.
Many issues of childhood and adulthood are confronted such as friendship, bullying, loss, broken and fulfilled promises, cruelty and compassion, thoughtfulness and thoughtlessness, rudeness and good manners, being careful what you wish for, dreams and nightmares, illness, aging, loneliness, love, fear, family, risk taking, following and disobeying rules and shared joy with friends and family. It might seem like too many for one book to handle but they are dealt with so deftly that they are easy to comprehend and overcome. Simple explanations prevent them from becoming too much for the reader.
When an author is good, the quiet enjoyment one receives while reading the pages is a treasure to experience. I found myself chuckling as I read along, smiling to myself at the way the seemingly innocent descriptions, formed images in my mind, almost as if the eight year old Noah, was whispering in my ear. I found myself understanding the simple concepts presented and realizing that young readers will have moments when they simply think, “aha” so that is how I should deal with that kind of a circumstance…like when you are on a train and someone is talking too loud, you simply ignore them rather than make a scene by getting angry or doing something kind for someone even though you would really rather be doing something else, because it is the right thing to do. The book is filled with these kinds of object lessons and they seem to occur very naturally without becoming too numerous or too unwieldy.
The illustrations are simple drawings that appear to be drawn by a young child of about the same age as the main character. They are a perfect complement to this marvelously entertaining story (even though it is tinged with deep sadness), about a child who learns to face his worst fears. Because of his experiences when he runs away, he ultimately makes decisions for his future and learns to appreciate his life, rather than being afraid to live because of what might ultimately happen.
At the end of the book, Noah is enlightened. The toymaker has helped him think through his problems and as they share their experiences, he learns to better handle his own. He learns that each day can be an adventure, no matter how ordinary, no matter where he is, because life is filled with choices. Sometimes we make some good ones and sometimes we make some bad ones. Some we can fix and some we cannot.
Although the story deals with a dreadfully sad and difficult problem, a child who has to face the death of a parent, the message does not come across as too overwhelming. The message delivered is really that we have to explore life, while we live it, and appreciate the moment with those we love, rather than dread what comes after it. We have to live and enjoy each day, without fearing what the future will bring. So, in the end, although the subject matter is very heavy, it is dealt with so well, that it is also uplifting, because although it deals with the possibility of great loss, it really gives us a philosophy to use to face it. It teaches us to welcome and appreciate life and to look forward to it eagerly in the present.