Thursday, September 08, 2016
Book Review: A Boy Made of Blocks
Back when I was teaching, Minecraft was such a craze. As much as my pupils adored books, sports, Lego...Minecraft was the great unifier - they were all obsessed. I've played a little myself (hey, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em, right?) and know enough about Creepers and the difference between Creative and Survival Mode to get by. In the last year or so, while I've been out of the classroom I've not really had to use this knowledge, however, and it has lain dormant while other, less block-based pursuits have taken up my time.
Minecraft swept back into my life last week, however, when I was sent a copy of A Boy Made of Blocks* by Keith Stuart to read and review. Keith writes for the Guardian on tech and gaming, and is a keen Minecraft player - he really feels that the game has helped him to bond with his young son. Having spent many hours playing the game with young folk, I can more than believe this. Taking this bonding as his inspiration, Keith has written A Boy Made of Blocks.
And it is brilliant.
A Boy Made of Blocks charts the family life of Alex and Jody, and their young son Sam. Alex is going through the thirtysomething angst phase and is struggling to understand how he wants his life to be. He loves Jody but their connection feels a little frayed at the beginning of the novel, and he loves Sam but he struggles to understand him. Sam is a beautiful, talented child, who has autism, and at the start of the book Alex is finding it hard to be the parent Sam deserves and needs.
Then Sam discovers Minecraft, and he and Alex bond and grow through playing the game together, and it's really beautiful. The scenes where the family play Minecraft and the opportunities the game gives them to understand one another and appreciate one another are wonderfully conjured, and the whole endeavour feels real and warm. I also love that through playing Minecraft Alex doesn't just learn more about Sam and how he relates to him, but also learns a lot more about himself. This is a great story of a modern family and the ways that they come together.
I loved Stuart's writing of the character of Sam. Characters on the spectrum can sometimes feel a little caricature like in fiction or film - a mysterious, magical figure, or a loud/quiet (delete as applicable), misunderstood loner. Anyone who has lived with a person with autism or who has worked with them (as I did when working in special needs care back in my uni days) can tell you that neither of those portrayals are fair, or real. Autism is a condition with a million and one variations, and I loved that Sam was a vivid, funny character, and that he was such a vital and key part of the story - I loathe when books have a character with a learning difficulty, a condition, or an illness and make them two-dimensional and an object rather than a subject. I loved how Keith wrote Sam, making this the second book in as many weeks where I was cheered and inspired by the writing of a differently-abled character (the other being the wonderful Hope, in Miss You).
This is a funny, warm, touching and entertaining book. It's about family, love, growth...and Minecraft, and it's a wonderful, wonderful read. If you like good, thought-provoking fiction, I'd highly recommend this book.
Disclaimer: I was sent a copy of the book in exchange for a fair and honest review. I was also invited to the launch party last week at Goldsboro Books, which was such fun - thank you, all!