Barkbelly by Cat Weatherill

I was inspired by Wild Magic to check out more books by Cat Weatherill so I started with Barkbelly. I am not sure if it was my mood or the style of this particular work but it didn’t have quite the same – ahem – magic as I had hoped.

It is creative and again clearly influenced by oral storytelling but if feels a bit more like episodes tied together rather than a seamless story. The hook – an orphaned wooden boy seeking to find his place in the world – was interesting, and the story has some well done ingredients, but it just never quite “took off” for me.

Here is the teaser from the publisher:

One silver-starry night, a shiny, wooden egg falls from a flying machine high in the air . . . down, down, down through the midnight sky . . . down to the small village of Pumbleditch, where Barkbelly is born. Where he’s the only wooden boy. And where he’s the cause of a tragic accident.

Suddenly, Barkbelly’s only choice is to flee for his life—to run. As he tries to escape his haunting past, he faces extraordinary adventures and dangers. Every wooden step leads Barkbelly toward the dark and startling truth about where he comes from and the burning question of where he really belongs. With deliciously imaginative storytelling, Cat Weatherill creates an utterly magical world—and one wooden boy who’s sure to melt readers’ hearts.

More of my take below. (Some spoilers involved)

I don’t want to give the impression that I hated the book or something. As noted above, the basic hook for the story is captivating: a race of wooden people who hatch after being placed in the fire. Barkbelly is a compelling figure as well; even if the orphan trope is rather common (alone and different than everyone else, etc.).

Many of the ingredients are well done; the pieces and parts of the imaginary world Weatherill creates. But the story seems to flow in fits and starts. Barkbelly grows up in his adopted family – tragedy forces him to flee – he exists in a strange town but is again forced to flee – he seeks out his real family only to be disappointed – he returns home to eventual triumph.

Rather than each of the above components feeding the tension and adding to the mystery some of the feel just like little vignettes added for color – interesting but not directly connected to the larger story. And so in the middle the story gets bogged down a bit.

To her credit, Weatherill adds a twist that pushes off the happy ending and changes the nature of that happiness to a certain degree. The real ending feels a little to easy in some ways (the magic involved is only vaguely established earlier) but it keeps the story interesting for longer.

It could be that what Kirkus calls an “episodic read” just didn’t work for me. It could also be that the limits of YA storytelling combined with this style to make the story feel less than it was for me. For whatever reason, Wild Magic worked as a whole a lot better than Barkbelly did.

School Library Jounral noted:

Weatherill is a performance storyteller, and there is an oral storytelling feel to the characters and their reactions, as well as to the circularity of the plot. This does not translate wholly successfully to the longer chapter-book format, and independent readers might find the characters rather one-dimensional.

This might be a part of it as well.

But I think the creativity and imagination involved makes this book worth checking out for those young readers looking for unique YA fiction.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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