Boo: The Things Parents Don’t Know Are Often The Most Important

Boo by Neil SmithI’ll admit it: I was one of those children who tried to memorized the Periodic Table.

Today, there are 118 elements on the list. In the 1980s, when I was a kid, there were 108, and ten years before that, there were 106.

It’s these 106 elements, starting with Hydrogen and ending with Seaborgium, that 13-year-old Oliver “Boo” Dalrymple is determined to memorize.* He’s the main character of Neil Smith’s Boo, a dark yet amusing novel in which two boys investigate how they ended up dead. They’re stuck for the next fifty years in an afterlife in which everyone in a town called “Town” is their age.

The last thing Boo remembers of his life is standing in front of his locker reciting the elements when he drops dead on September 7, 1979. The next thing he knows, he’s lying in a bed at the Meg Murry Infirmary, one of many locations in Town named after characters from books well-loved by 13-year-olds.

Smith’s novel is a book Boo writes for his parents about his afterlife. It’s his attempt to comfort them from beyond the grave.

In Chapter 1, entitled Hydrogen, Boo asks them:

“Did you realize I was a pariah? If you did not, I am sorry I never made this clear, but I did not want you fretting about something you could in no way control.”

Poor Boo! He gained friends for the first time only after his death. It’s hard to believe his parents hadn’t known on some level that he was an outcast, but at the same time, my own experience as a parent has taught me that we don’t always know as much as we think we do about our children’s lives.

My oldest two, who are now rising 2nd graders, have always been different from each other socially, a trait we’ve tried to encourage by putting them into separate classes. We agonized over this decision, one of the most controversial decisions parents of twins can make.

During their Kindergarten year, though, we started to have second thoughts about our choice when one twin received several birthday party invitations while her sister received very few.

The excluded twin cried whenever her sister received an invitation from a classmate, but she otherwise seemed happy at school, always rambling on about what she learned and what her teacher said.

Then, well into the year, I learned that my daughter also sat by herself in the cafeteria, a place segregated by classroom.

How could I have missed that? I still don’t know the answer.

Thankfully, in 1st grade, my daughter rectified the situation by inventing a food sensitivity for herself so she could sit with her best friend at the “peanut allergic” table. The aides checked my daughter’s lunch box and then let her sit down.** When her identical twin sister (still in a different class) tried the same tactic with a similarly peanut-free lunch, the aides wouldn’t allow her to take one of those highly coveted seats. “You don’t have an allergy,” they said, a rationale she accepted without blowing her twin’s cover.

I’m impressed—and relieved—that my previously lonely twin daughter was able to handle the problem on her own. Still, I wish I had known about her struggle, even if Boo may be right that I’d be “fretting about something [I can] in no way control.”

As a parent, it’s my job to try to help (at least behind the scenes), even if it doesn’t always work.

These were the thoughts I kept having as I became better acquainted with Boo in Neil Smith’s engrossing book. My heart ached not only for the lonely 13-year-old at the center of the story, but also for his parents, who were never given the chance to help him.

I am looking forward to sharing this novel with my twins when they are a little older. I’m sure it will spark an interesting—and important—discussion about loneliness, cruelty, friendship, and death.***

For more perspectives on Boo, check out:

  • Melwyk @ The Indextrious Reader: “I haven’t come across such an original story in ages – if you’re looking for something unusual that can spark conversation about deep themes, while also being an entertaining, eventful read, give this one a try.”
  • Michelle @ That’s What She Read: “Boo is one of those novels that is so good while in the midst of reading it but whose details sadly fade too quickly.”
  • Jaaron @ Worn Pages and Ink: “5 stars. Without a doubt. Read it.”
  • Lauren @ Bookish Things: “For a YA novel there is a lot going on here and a lot being said, not only about Boo but about culture, politics, philosophy, mental health, grief and so much more. Definitely DEFINITELY worth reading.”
  • Eva @ The Paperback Princess: “Boo was a quirky little book but it didn’t pack the emotional punch I was expecting from a coming-of-age story where the narrator is stuck at age 13.”

UPDATE (January 2016): Speaking of the Periodic table, the four newest elements will get permanent names soon! Via NPR: “For now, they’re known by working names, like ununseptium and ununtrium — two of the four new chemical elements whose discovery has been officially verified. The elements with atomic numbers 113, 115, 117 and 118 will get permanent names soon, according to the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry.”


*Dalrymple isn’t a name I come across often. It’s in Jane Austen’s Persuasion and also in Amelia Elkins Elkins, my newly released retelling of Austen’s classic work (See Here for More about this Legal Fiction/Contemporary Women novel).

**I never put peanut or nut-products in my daughter’s lunch because she dislikes them. I am particularly careful about it because she sits at the “peanut allergic” table.

*** Mr. A.M.B. requested I add this link for some unspecified reason.



  1. I had heard about this book here and there, but I can see now why it’s an important read for parents. It’s so hard to know how much information to get about our kids and I think some sort of trust in the goodness of people or the universe to send our kids out into the world every day without our presence!

    1. Yes, parenting requires trusting others and also our own children. We’d go crazy with worry otherwise! I really liked Boo. I’m hoping Mr. AMB will pick it up soon. I’m curious to know if my other half’s reaction will be similar to mine.

  2. Great thoughts on a difficult novel. Your own personal experiences as the mother of an excluded child are particularly powerful. My son was the victim of bullying a few years ago. Thankfully, he did have a few friends who provided more comfort than I could. It is so difficult, especially as they get older, because you want to swoop in to help them but have to respect their privacy and give them a chance to learn how to persevere on their own. No matter what my thoughts on the actual story are, I do think Boo does an amazing job of showing that no matter how involved we are in our children’s lives, there is always something happening about which we have no idea. It’s a sobering thought, given the prevalence of violence as a last resort in school these days.

    1. “It is so difficult, especially as they get older, because you want to swoop in to help them but have to respect their privacy and give them a chance to learn how to persevere on their own.”

      Well said. It’s a careful balance. The problems I mention in this post happened last year, when my daughter was in Kindergarten. At that early stage in school, my involvement might have been more helpful than detrimental. Who knows. Overall, though, I’m glad my daughter figured out how to handle the situation on her own.

      Also, thanks for writing such a great review of Boo!

  3. This does sound like an interesting book, definitely thought provoking. This is something I worry about for my daughter, as an only child with parents who do not really have friends with young children, no cousins her age nearby . . . Her ability to make friends once she starts school is going to be important. I don’t know that I would be able to help her much in that regard. I was never good at making friends, not really. Especially in my middle school to teen years, I was more on the outside. I had friends of sorts, but we were not really close by that point. I didn’t have a crowd I hung out with. There were a couple boys who picked on me quite a bit for a number of years. I learned to keep my head down, study, and stay in my own little world. My mom and I were talking the other day about her upcoming high school reunion and she asked me why I have never had an interest in going to mine. Because there’s no one I want to see. That seems foreign to her–but then, she’s always been more social than I am. I hope my daughter will be more like my mother in that regard, for her sake.

    There are already little signs that my daughter has her own life I am not privy too. It seems impossible at the age of 4 that she possibly could, but I don’t spend the work days with her. I devour the stories her teachers tell me about her, including about little disagreements she may be having or if she’s being picked on. I get to see it sometimes when I am helping out at her school or if I let her play some more before we leave at the end of the day. I like watching her interact with her peers. She definitely is a bit of a dreamer, much like I was, wandering off on her own to play with her imaginary friends. But I’ve also seen her playing with the other boys and girls, pretending to be a superhero princess. I’ve seen her be a follower and a leader–although probably mostly a follower. I’m both excited and nervous to see what kind of girl she’ll grow into as the years go by. And off on a tangent I went. Haha Sorry.

    1. It’s interesting to hear about your experience. Thank you for sharing it. Childhood is easier for the socially inclined people. I benefited from having a sister who was immensely popular and also from being in school with the same kids from K-12 (I even went to preschool with some of them). Still, I wasn’t social. I graduated with a small group of solid friends. My husband dislikes his high school experience more than I do and he has never wanted to attend any of his high school reunions.

      I hope my children have a school experience closer to mine than to their father’s (they’re actually attending the same school district I went to). As much as I want to guide them through those years, they’re the ones who will have to navigate it. I often joke that we’re running our own “twin experiment” with our genetically identical girls who are just so different from each other. One benefit of working all the time is that we’ve had to put our kids in the after-care program, which has helped develop their social skills. It also seems to make them feel more connected to the school community, which I hope will reduce the likelihood of bullying in the future. We’ll see (if my children decide to share that information with me).

      My youngest, who is four just like Mouse, is the alpha child in her preschool class. I hope her classmates like her–she’s such a lovable little creature, if I do say so myself!–but sometimes I think they fear her. Right now, she’s about a half a foot to a foot taller than some of the same-age children in her class and more rambunctious (very different from her demure older sisters).

  4. If parents knew everything their kids suffered in silence, their hair would turn white. It’s sad there’s a conversation gap in families, but I wonder if that’s the way it’s supposed to be? How else can kids learn to think for themselves, make decisions, enjoy the rewards or live with the consequences of them, and finally grow up? The current trend of “helicopter parents” is distressing. It does a huge disservice to children, taking away their right to make mistakes and do stupid things, without which they can’t develop the maturity to handle life as adults.

    Don’t worry overmuch about your kids. They know they are loved, and they’ll be fine. 🙂

    1. Thanks! I hope they’ll be fine. I certainly don’t want to be a helicopter parent (I don’t have the time to be one anyway!), but I do want to be available to support them when problems arise. I wish my daughter had said she sat by herself every day. However, I am glad that she figured out how to handle the situation on her own.

  5. I enjoyed the story about the peanut allergy. Cute they wanted to sit at a different table. Surprising the two girls have differing experiences at school. Parenting must be difficult when you have a kid that don’t quite fit in with the rest. I felt bad for Boo and the parents had no clue.

    1. Yes, I felt so bad for Boo and his family! It’s a great book. I’m looking forward to hearing what my kids think about it (when they’re just a tad older).

  6. Sounds interesting. One of the first things I noticed about your blog was the fact that your daughters have red hair. This set off a subconscious chain reaction that took me back to the years of bullying my own daughter underwent because she was intelligent and had beautiful, long, red hair. At least I imagined these were the reasons for her persecution. Of course it wasn’t as simple as that. Getting to the bottom of who is socially accepted and why is like trying to analyse fractals: there’s always another piece to the pattern, which goes on forever and is subject to infinitesimal changes that undermine rational conclusions. Wonderful, and, at the same time, dreadful. So, I shall add Boo to my list because I enjoy a child’s voice. As usual, thank you for your recommendation. PS my daughter says it wasn’t until she entered her twenties that she felt good about herself. Like you, I missed some of the signs. What’s more, I probably mis-handled those I did find out about. School – something has to change.

    1. Thank you for sharing your experience. I wonder if there’s a subconscious reaction to my daughters’ red hair, but both twins have it and yet one is actually quite popular. In the US, red hair is highly coveted these days. For my girls, Anne of Green Gables, in which Anne loathes her red hair, was a rude awakening.

      As for Boo, I hope you like it! It is written from Boo’s perspective, but he isn’t a typical child. He’s more like an adult, but some of his observations are refreshingly childlike.

  7. As the twin who never received an invitation; today at 41 I still have never had a friend in the united States of America. It gets old; I can see why people commit suicide. It’s not selfish; it’s I can’t take your American treatment of humans that never did a bad thing to you any more.

    1. I’m sorry to hear that you’ve had a similar experience. I hope you’ve found a good support system to help you process it. Thank you for stopping by my blog and for sharing your experience here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s