Brandon Wright says he’s the best in his class at football, the best at maths, the best at singing, the best at drawing; what’s more, he’s the strongest, he’s got the best bike, the fastest skates. Except he isn’t and he hasn’t. He’s rubbish at everything – except, obviously, boasting. Until, that is, Brandon says he could count to ten million. No-one believes him, except his little sister Elle and she believes everything Brandon says. It turns out he really is great at counting.
For the rest of the book (well, almost) Brandon utters nothing but numbers. Even though he keeps counting when he’s asleep, it’s going to take him just short of a year to get there. We know that’s true because Mr Wyke, Brandon’s teacher, does the Maths on the board while Brandon goes on counting all through every lesson. He still goes on counting even when Miss Hexx, his truly terrifying headteacher, yells at him to stop. Though Brandon’s being a pain, Mr Wyke can’t help loving the way those numbers just keep going up and up. ‘It’s…well, it’s rather beautiful,’ he says.
Miss Hexx doesn’t agree: ‘Beauty is not a curriculum subject. It passes no exams and it cannot be measured.’ This is one of those books which is for children and for grown-ups. It’s a great read-aloud for kids, driven by a single comic idea – a gift which goes on giving; but there’s also embedded satire, largely at the expense of the wisdom informing our current Education system. Miss Hexx takes over as Brandon’s manager, devising a written contract ensnaring Brandon and his family when his count goes viral, enabling her to grab shedloads of money as Brandon’s fame spreads across the globe. Miss Hexx is soon heading up The Big-Count Schools PLC for Talented Children, a profit-making chain of schools (sound familiar?). With Brandon’s target in sight, Miss Hexx hires Wembley Stadium – tickets at £1000 a time to hear him hit that final mark. The whole world is pulsing to the count, until – well, that’d be telling.
It’s tricky for an author when his novel’s hero speaks only in numbers, but Burgess ensures that it’s what goes on around Brandon that builds the comedy. Great mathematicians such as Dame Mildred Gosling stop by to admire the music of Brandon’s counting. To their astonished delight, these scholars see the numbers discovering lives of their own and, with no human help, performing astounding feats such as coming up with a proof for Riemann’s hypothesis. The numbers become visible, adopting their own choice of colour and, if they feel like it, they’ll pass the time queuing all the way to the moon and back, waiting for Brandon to call out each number. Chris Mould’s illustrations are integral to the narrative. Brandon, his family, his classmates and the assorted teachers and mathematicians are skinny as sticks, but with extra-large heads wearing startled or furious or anxious or amused expressions. As for those numbers, they’re soon leaping and dancing in sequences across the double pages, riding lines of music, above and among the words and images, up to whatever mischief they fancy. Throughout the book, illustrations deftly interplay with words.
This is not the Melvin Burgess who won the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Fiction Award with his uncompromising 1996 YA novel, Junk, though this story also leaves you wanting to find live readers to share it with – in this instance, I’d guess, to enjoy what they make of the anarchic wit, skill and comic invention.