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David Almond (1951-) - Sidelights

review skellig kit book

British writer David Almond wrote for adults for a number of years before he achieved what amounted to overnight success with his first novel for young adults, Skellig. This 1998 tale of a young boy's discovery of a possibly supernatural creature in his own backyard was unanimously praised by reviewers, sold out its first printing in four days, and went on to win Britain's prestigious Whitbread Children's Book of the Year award and the Carnegie Medal. Almond has received numerous other honors for his work, including the Michael L. Printz Award for Kit's Wilderness and the Boston Globe/Horn Book Award for The Fire-Eater.

Like the hero in Skellig, Almond grew up on the fringes of a Northern English city, a landscape that offered great imaginative possibilities for him as a youth. He once commented: "Maybe ink was always in my blood. I don't remember it, of course, but as a baby in my mother's arms I used to visit my uncle's printing works on the narrow high street of our town. I used to point and grin and gurgle as the pages of the local newspaper rolled off the machines. It was a small steep town with wild heather hills at the crest and the River Tyne flowing far below. From our windows, we looked out towards the city that packed the opposite bank, towards the distant sea, and even on clear days toward the hazy Cheviots an eternity away. It was a place that had everything necessary for the imagination.

"I grew up in a big extended Catholic family. I listened to the stories and songs at family parties. I listened to the gossip that filled Dragon's coffee shop. I ran with my friends through the open spaces and the narrow lanes. We scared each other with ghost stories told in fragile tents on dark nights. We promised never-ending friendship and whispered of the amazing journeys we'd take together. I sat with my grandfather in his allotment, held tiny Easter chicks in my hands while he smoked his pipe and the factory sirens wailed and larks yelled high above. I trembled at the images presented to us in church, at the awful threats and glorious promises made by black-clad priests with Irish voices. I scribbled stories and stitched them into little books. I disliked school and loved the library, a little square building in which I dreamed that books with my name on them would stand one day on the shelves. I loved Arthurian legends, Hemingway, John Wyndham, the tales of the fake Tibetan monk, Lobsang Rampa."

After earning a degree from the University of East Anglia, Almond became a teacher. In 1982, he quit a full-time job, sold his house, and moved to a commune in order to devote himself to writing. The result was a collection of stories, Sleepless Nights, published by a small press in 1985. As Almond once commented, "I began to write properly after university, after five years of teaching. Short stories appeared in little magazines. A couple were broadcast on Radio 4. A small press collection, Sleepless Nights, appeared to a tiny amount of acclaim and a vast amount of silence. I ran a fiction magazine, Panurge, that excited and exhausted me for six years. I wrote The Great English Novel that took five years, went to 33 publishers and was rejected by them all. I went on writing. More stories, more publications, a few small prizes. Another novel, never finished. Another story collection was published, A Kind of Heaven, twelve years after the first. Then at last I started writing about growing up in our small steep town: a whole sequence of stories, half-real, half-imaginary, that I called Stories from the Middle of the World. They took a year to write."

It was the act of finishing the Newcastle stories that inexplicably led Almond to the opening lines of Skellig: "I found him in the garage on Sunday afternoon," recalls the book's narrator, ten-year-old Michael—an opening line that, Almond said, simply came to him as he was walking down the street. As he explained in an interview with Publishers Weekly, "When I wrote the last of these stories, I stuck them into an envelope, and as soon as I'd posted away the book to my agent, the story of Skellig just flew into my head, as if it had just been waiting there." On the Sunday in question on which Skellig begins, Michael and his family have just taken possession of an old, run-down house; also new to them is a newborn infant sister for Michael, who initially arrives home from the hospital but soon must return for heart surgery.

In the garage, behind a great deal of clutter, Michael discovers a man covered in dust and insects. At first he believes it is an old homeless man, but he finds that Skellig, who communicates with Michael but does not reveal much by way of explanation, has odd wing-like appendages. It seems Skellig has come there to die. As he begins his new school, while his mother is away with his sister at the hospital and his father is understandably preoccupied, Michael begins to bring Skellig food and medicine. He also befriends his new neighbor, a girl name Mina who is an intelligent, independent thinker. Mina explains to Michael a few of her interests, such as ornithology and the poetry of early nineteenth-century Romantic writer William Blake. She also shows him a nest of rare owls, which may have something to do with Skellig's presence.

As Perri Klass noted, writing about Skellig in the New York Times Book Review, the book's charm lies in its author's courage for allowing some things to remain a mystery. "In its simple but poetic language, its tender refusal to package its mysteries neatly or offer explanations for what happens in either world, it goes beyond adventure story or family-with-a-problem story to become a story about worlds enlarging and the hope of scattering death." As the story progresses, Michael shares the secret of Skellig with Mina, and as they both visit him in the garage, his health improves considerably. As a result, however, the mysterious occupant becomes even more secretive and mystical before he vanishes.

Michael feels his baby sister's heart beating one day, and realizes that love can achieve miracles that science cannot. Klass, in a New York Times Book Review critique, praised Almond's talent for weaving in the more prosaic details of life such as soccer practice and the daily school-bus ride with larger questions involving the metaphysical world. "Its strength as a novel is in its subtlety, its sideways angles," observed Klass. "It is a book about the business of everyday life proceeding on a canvas suddenly widened to include mystery and tragedy, although not everyone has eyes to see."

Other reviews were similarly positive. Cathryn M. Mercier, writing in Five Owls, called Skellig a "novel of faith and hope," and "a book of rare spirituality for young adults." Reading Time reviewer Howard George described it as "a haunting story" whose impact lies in "the deep emotions evoked by the family crisis and the love given out to Skellig."

Almond had already completed his second young adult novel, Kit's Wilderness, before Skellig won several literary prizes in Britain, including the Whitbread and the Carnegie Medal. The focus of this second book is a game of pretend death that its characters play. "In my primary school—a spooky turreted place down by the river where the ancient coal mines had been—a bunch of kids used to play a fainting game in the long grass beyond the school yard wall," wrote Almond in Carousel. The story is far less insular than the secretive plot of Skellig, and Almond has noted that as a work of fiction it took him far longer to develop coherently.

"At times I was scared stiff by what was happening in the tale," Almond admitted in Carousel. "Scared that it might all end dreadfully, scared that the darkness would gain the upper hand." But his next work, Kit's Wilderness, would prove equally successful. Kit's Wilderness is a tale that is "very linked to the scenery of my childhood and the stories and history of the place where I grew up," the author told Booklist interviewer Ilene Cooper.

In the novel, thirteen-year-old Kit Watson moves with his family to the old British coal-mining town of Stoneygate, where they will care for Kit's widowed grandfather. A troubled, enigmatic classmate named John Askew befriends Kit and introduces him to a bizarre game called "Death" that is played in the abandoned mines. Participants lie alone in the dark mines in an attempt to connect with the spirits of their ancestors, who died there as young boys in a terrible accident. Though several of the players treat the game as a lark, "Kit senses something far more profound and dangerous, and the connection he forges with the ancient past also circuitously seals a deeper bond with Askew," noted a critic in Publishers Weekly. When John disappears, Kit determines to locate his friend and reunite him with his family. At the same time, Kit discovers an artistic side to his personality through his relationship with his grandfather, a storyteller who inspires Kit to write his own tale, one that mirrors the events of Kit's life.

According to School Library Journal critic Ellen Fader, the author "brings these complicated, interwoven plots to a satisfying conclusion as he explores the power of friendship and family, the importance of memory, and the role of magic in our lives." In her review of Kit's Wilderness, Cooper remarked that "the story's ruminations about death and the healing power of love will strike children in unsuspected ways." In 2000 Almond published his third novel for teens. Heaven Eyes blends everyday adventure with a dalliance in the netherworld; its characters are escapees of a juvenile home who flee on a raft to an old printing plant on the River Tyne. The autobiographical story collection Counting Stars followed, and in 2001 the author produced Secret Heart, "a thought-provoking allegory," wrote Daniel L. Darigan in School Library Journal. Secret Heart focuses on Joe Maloney, a lonely misfit who dreams of tigers and finds himself curiously drawn to a ragged traveling circus that arrives in his town. "Almond fans, who relish the author's skill at creating surreal landscapes and otherworldly images, will not be disappointed by this tale," remarked a critic in Publishers Weekly.

Almond's 2003 novel, The Fire-Eaters, was shortlisted for both the Carnegie Medal and the Whitbread Award and received the Smarties Gold Award. Set in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the book concerns twelve-year-old Bobby Burns, who lives with his family in a small English seaside village. Accepted into an elite private school, Bobby must deal with a cruel teacher who practices corporal punishment, his evolving relationships with a pair of old friends, and a strange illness that befalls his father. Overshadowing everything is the threat of nuclear war; according to a reviewer in Publishers Weekly, "Bobby's reflections . . . convey the young protagonist's uncertainties and a sense of the world itself being on the cusp of change." "The apocalyptic atmosphere is personified by the tragic character McNulty, a fire-eating exhibitionist whose torturous feats raise" another significant theme, observed Horn Book critic Lauren Adams, "the human capacity for pain—giving it, accepting it, bearing it for another." A contributor in Kirkus Reviews deemed The Fire-Eaters "breathtakingly and memorably up to Almond's best."

"I always knew that I wanted to be a writer," Almond stated on his Web site. "One of my uncles had a small printing works. My mum said that she used to take me there as a baby and I used to laugh and point at the printed pages coming off the rollers—so maybe I began to fall in love with print when I was just a few months old."

Biographical and Critical Sources

PERIODICALS

Book, May, 2001, Kathleen Odean, review of Kit's Wilderness, p. 80.

Booklist, January 1, 2000, Ilene Cooper, "The Booklist Interview: David Almond," p. 898, and review of Kit's Wilderness, p. 899; March 15, 2000, Michael Cart, "Carte Blanche," p. 1370; April 1, 2001, Ilene Cooper, interview with Almond, p. 1464; February 1, 2002, Hazel Rochman, review of Counting Stars, p. 934; October 1, 2002, Michael Cart, review of Secret Heart, p. 322; March 15, 2004, Ilene Cooper, review of The Fire-Eaters, pp. 1297-1298.

Carousel, summer, 1999, David Almond, "Writing for Boys," p. 29.

Five Owls, May-June, 1999, Cathryn M. Mercier, review of Skellig, p. 110.

Horn Book, May, 1999, review of Skellig, p. 326; March-April, 2002, Gregory Maguire, review of Counting Stars, pp. 207-208; November-December, 2002, Christine M. Heppermann, review of Secret Heart, pp. 745-746; May-June, 2004, review of The Fire-Eaters, p. 324.

Kirkus Reviews, March 15, 2002, review of Counting Stars, p. 404; September 1, 2002, review of Secret Heart, p. 1300; April 1, 2004, review of The Fire-Eaters, p. 323.

Kliatt, November, 2002, Paula Rohrlick, review of Secret Heart, p. 5; January, 2004, Nola Theiss, review of Counting Stars, p. 26.

Los Angeles Times, April 8, 2001, "Books for Kids," p. 6.

New York Times Book Review, June 6, 1999, Perry Klass, review of Skellig, p. 49.

Publishers Weekly, May 10, 1999, p. 34; June 28, 1999, Elizabeth Devereaux, "Flying Starts," p. 25; January 3, 2000, review of Kit's Wilderness, p. 77; November 6, 2000, "Best Children's Books 2000," p. 43; April 1, 2002, review of Counting Stars, p. 85; July 1, 2002, "The British Invasion," pp. 26-29; August 19, 2002, review of Secret Heart, p. 90; May 3, 2004, review of The Fire-Eaters, p. 192.

Reading Time, May, 1999, Howard George, review of Skellig, p. 25.

School Library Journal, March, 2000, Ellen Fader, review of Kit's Wilderness, p. 233; March, 2002, William McLoughlin, review of Counting Stars, p. 225; May, 2004, Joel Shoemaker, review of The Fire-Eaters, p. 140.

Voice of Youth Advocates, April, 2000, Bette Ammon, review of Kit's Wilderness, p. 42.

Washington Post, August 20, 2000, Linda Barrett Osbourne, "Children's Books," p. X10.

ONLINE

Achuka Web site, http://www.achuka.co.uk/ (October 19, 2001), interview with Almond.

American Library Association Web site, http://www.ala.org/ (February 9, 2001), "David Almond Wins Printz Award."

David Almond Home Page, http://www.davidalmond.com (March 24, 2005).

Jubilee Books Web site, http://www.jubileebooks.co.uk/ (October 19, 2001), interview with Almond.

Teen Reads Web site, http://www.teenreads.com (October 19, 2001), interview with Almond.*

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