David Almond writes, clear as rain, not a wasted word, about things that can barely be put into words – and the results are some of the most powerful children’s books of the last twenty years.
Skellig appeared in 1999, as if out of nowhere, and almost immediately won two of the biggest UK children’s book prizes. (Which is the kind of thing that gives us hack writers hope, or plunges us into despair, or both in turn.) It’s a little, light book that effortlessly bears enormous questions: how to settle in a new place; how to accept a new life and – terrifyingly – the idea of it being taken away; how to respond to a strange visitor when you’re not quite sure whether he’s a tramp, or an owl, or an angel. Maybe only David Almond could hold all three together without collapsing into absurdity; but I have to say, if you’re not close to crying at the end of the book, you’re almost certainly a boy.
Ten years later, Almond revisited one of Skellig’s characters, the awkward and precocious, home-schooled Mina. My Name is Mina is an amazing and beautiful book, to look at as well as to read, playing with letters and words and type and shapes and ideas and received wisdom in wild, free-wheeling thought-loops that whirl around sense to touch on truth. It’s a “prequel” if you like, standing alone but gaining a little extra depth if you can guess, towards the end, who the new family is with the unhappy-looking boy and the doctors rushing in all too soon after the baby is born. And Mina – will Mina, who knows what it is to be lonely and unhappy and frightened and different, be able to help them?
It was a pleasure to go back to The Fire-Eaters, another multiple prize-winner and for good reason. It’s anchored in an out-of-fashion real time, the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, when for a few days the world seemed on the brink of total war, with millions of ordinary lives held in the balance as two impossibly remote and unknown presidents decided their fate. Far more real to Bobby Burns, who tells the story, is his miner father’s desperate, worrying coughing, and the sadistic teacher at his new grammar school who provokes an unlikely mutiny. Always at the edge, between real and unreal, between fear and pity, is the crazed veteran McNulty, scrabbling a living as a street artist and fire-eater for grudgingly-given small change. We know, of course, that Kennedy faced down Kruschev and the world pulled back from the brink – but Almond makes us care all the more for those sharp-etched individual stories of families and friendships. How did they turn out in the end?
Birds are important to Almond, without a doubt – not in a drippy-hippy, symbolic way, but as creatures that are almost alien, almost angelic in their beauty and strength and freedom of flight. Or so Lizzie’s grieving dad sees it, constructing wings and nests, snapping up worms and flies in the hope of becoming less miserably human. Auntie Doreen fusses and attempts to bring everyone back to their senses with a volley of dumplings. Lizzie’s headmaster flaps hopelessly, humanly, at the sidelines. And then comes the Great Human Bird Competition with its promise of fame and fortune and (perhaps) being taken seriously – what will Lizzie do? My Dad’s a Birdman finds Almond just as adept at squeezing heavy questions into light books for younger readers, and Polly Dunbar’s earthly-warm and feather-light illustrations are perfect, as they are in the more recent collaboration The Boy who Climbed Into the Moon.
And that’s only a handful from an extraordinary list: find details at www.davidalmond.com, including video clips of Almond talking about and reading from his books, and a sample chapter from My Name is Mina.