Tony Barber’s novel Freaky Fearless Fred: The Exploding Dwarf inspired in me nothing but antipathy. An unlikeable protagonist and meandering plotting completely undermine a premise that seems intriguing at first glance, a story about a genius from another dimension stranded in rural Australia.
The reason Fred is a difficult character to care about is that he is too hyper-competent to have any real weaknesses. The first half of the novel sees him win a competition held by a manufacturer of children’s clothing and invent the world’s greatest toothbrush. He can also build a working time machine and run an outback radio station with only one other person. It’s too absurd to be amusing, and veers into the exasperating at time. Freaky Fred now has place on my list of male Mary Sues, alongside Sherlock Holmes and James Bond.
Beyond Fred’s vague desire to unite with his parents in his home dimension, the novel reads as though Barber was making it up as he wrote it. It begins with a potted description of the actions of the prequel – apparently Exploding Dwarf is the second of a trilogy – before Fred’s aunt, who looks after him, moves to Queensland to become a zookeeper and his best friend goes to America to become a comedian. At the age of eleven. But that’s okay because Fred is immortal or something. Then he receives a letter from an Alaskan radio ham that contains a message from his father. He goes to Alaskan to meet the ham, who turns out to be a dwarf in a series of jokes that present themselves as advocating tolerance, but in a mean-spirited way, then some more ridiculous stuff happens, and the dwarf explodes. I’m not even joking when I say that I could write a better book.
Perhaps the most irritating thing about Freaky Fearless Fred is the narratorial tone, which can be best described as like that of a mature age student who always dominates the conversation in a university tutorial, despite the valiant attempts of the tutor to avert that exact situation from occurring. In other words, the narrator comes across as the Australian version of Pierce from Community. Now I try to be tactful with old men who act this way, since I’m likely to become one myself, but an entire novel of this voice is almost unbearable. The standout moment of this voice was when Barber asserts that boys like explosions and gadgets while girls like something else, I can’t remember, I don’t have the book on hand right now. But it really bothered me how he asserted that thought without offering any sort of evidence, as though it were an incontrovertible and self-evident truth. Barber would do well to consider the work of scholars like Cordelia Fine before he repeats such glib assumptions.
In terms of things that Freaky Fearless Fred did well, the pictures were nice. Presumably drawn by Barber himself, they add an additional level of characterization solely needed in the text. And maybe the extremely episodic plot and aggravating tone would be made tolerable if the book was read out-loud to a classroom.
If you’re a parent, teacher, school librarian or giggling twenty-something who’s decided that pretending to be embarrassed about reading YA isn’t enough and decided to go full primary, walk past Freaky Fearless Fred. If you’re looking for slightly perverse Australian children’s literature I recommend Andy Griffith’s timeless classic Just Annoying. If you want to read about preternaturally talented children, you can’t go far wrong with Roald Dahl’s Matilda. If you need to know who the best children’s author I can name from the top of my head, the answer would Dianne Wynne Jones. Don’t bother with Freaky Fearless Fred.