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About this book

David Almond is one of the most exciting and innovative authors writing for children and young people today. Since the publication of his award-winning first book, Skellig (1998), his novels have pushed the boundaries of children's literature and magical realism.

This vibrant collection of original essays by leading international children's literature scholars and researchers provides a theoretically-informed overview of Almond's novels and fresh analysis of individual texts. Exploring broad themes such as philosophy, theology and cognitive science, the volume also introduces new concepts such as mystical realism, literary Catholicism and radical landscape.

Table of Contents

1. Introduction: David Almond and Mystical Realism

It has been both challenging and exhilarating to work with eminent researchers across the world in preparing this Palgrave Macmillan Casebook on the work of British writer David Almond. David Almond’s books have somehow struck that elusive balance of appealing to both critics and readers, including and most especially young readers. In 2010 Almond won the highly prestigious biennial Hans Christian Andersen Award, which recognises the lasting contribution to children’s literature of a living author. He has also won the Carnegie Medal (for Skellig in 1998), the Whitbread Children’s Award (twice), based both on literary merit and popular appeal, and numerous other international awards and prizes. A complete list of books may be found in the Further Reading section.
Rosemary Ross Johnston

2. Living Just Beyond the Wall: Versions of the Savage in David Almond’s Novels

In a note ‘About the Author’ in his novel Secret Heart, David Almond tells readers that he and his family live ‘just beyond the ancient Roman Wall, which once marked the place where civilisation ended and the wastelands begin’. As Almond suggests himself in an online interview, that geographical location can stand as a metaphor for the fictional space created by his novels: saying that ‘beyond the wall was where the kind of wild things happened’. He adds, ‘Good books have kind of been into the wilderness and have come back again and they’re kind of controlled, they’re kind of civilised, but if they’re any good they’ve still got that kind of hint of wildness about them.’1 As a result of their shared (and sizeable) ‘hint of wildness’, Almond’s novels tend to read as versions or variations of the same story, a story intriguingly and obsessively engaged with the border between civilisation and savagery in the lives of young people - especially boys. The commonalties in Almond’s descriptions of life on both sides of the wall where civilisation ends not only mark his work as distinctively his but also, at the same time, reveal its allegiance to some key characteristics typical of writing for young people, itself a literature about life on both sides of the wall where adulthood begins.
Perry Nodelman

3. Ontology, Epistemology and Values: Philosophy and Cognitive Science in David Almond’s Skellig and My Name is Mina

How do children learn philosophical concepts? Some children learn them directly, from parents and teachers and spiritual leaders who engage them in questions about what it means to be alive, what it means to reason, what it means to be ethical. Still more children learn about philosophy indirectly, from living the lives they live - and consuming the texts to which they are exposed. Although many children do not engage openly in debates about metaphysics and values, they frequently experience in children’s literature concepts that engage them in thinking about values - and in ontology and epistemology - that is, in what it means to be and what it means to know; in what it means to be a sentient and rational being; in how we are constructed by the world we live in, and how we choose to live in it.
Roberta Seelinger Trites

4. The Possibilities of Becoming: Process-Relational Theology in the Works of David Almond

In David Almond and Dave McKean’s hauntingly beautiful and original creation fable, Mouse Bird Snake Wolf, a host of gods and goddesses create a world full of wondrous things before they tire and become more interested in taking tea and naps than in finishing their work. Three children, Harry, Sue and Ben, enjoy their world, but they notice its unfinished quality, finding its gaps and empty spaces both appealing and frightening, and they call out to the gods to make more things. When the gods remain silent, they take it upon themselves to create the things they think the world needs by imagining and sculpting their creatures from found objects and then bringing them to life with their words and their sense of the way the creatures should sound and move: little Ben creates a mouse, Sue a bird, and Harry a snake. While Ben is happy with the new creatures they have made, Harry and Sue want a bigger challenge, and together, against Ben’s protests, they imagine a wolf.
Karen Coats

5. ‘A sense sublime’: Religious Resonances in the Works of David Almond

It has been both challenging and exhilarating to work with eminent researchers across the world in preparing this Palgrave Macmillan Casebook on the work of British writer David Almond. David Almond’s books have somehow struck that elusive balance of appealing to both critics and readers, including and most especially young readers. In 2010 Almond won the highly prestigious biennial Hans Christian Andersen Award, which recognises the lasting contribution to children’s literature of a living author. He has also won the Carnegie Medal (for Skellig in 1998), the Whitbread Children’s Award (twice), based both on literary merit and popular appeal, and numerous other international awards and prizes. A complete list of books may be found in the Further Reading section.
Valerie Coghlan

6. Birdmen from the Depths of the Earth: Radical Landscape in the Fiction of David Almond

David Almond’s treatment of these conflicting elements is radical in two key ways: first, he subverts and recasts dominant images of the north-east of England, the setting of all of his fiction;2 furthermore, the landscape encountered by his child characters reveals itself to be fundamentally different from their expectations and its apparent nature. In Almond’s North-East, children discover repeatedly a marriage of rural wildness and urban civilisation, undercutting those images which have come to typify landscape of the region; this radical vision is perhaps most evocatively presented in Almond’s wildernesses and wastelands. Urban settings almost invariably contain areas of untamed wilderness, alongside spaces of wasteland: the legacy of industrial decline. Frequently, such wastelands function like a portal for Almond’s child characters, ushering them forth into the unspoilt wilderness beyond. Natural spaces, such as his grandfather’s allotment, are central to Almond’s imaginative reworking of his own childhood memories, and he writes of the ‘freedom in walking away from the centre, in climbing closer to the lark-filled sky’.3
Nolan Dalrymple

7. ‘They thought we had disappeared, and they were wrong’: The Depiction of the Working Class in David Almond’s Novels

In an interview with Peter Hollindale in 2003, David Almond relates how, with his success as a children’s novelist, came widespread disbelief that he still chose to live in his native Tyneside, close to the working-class districts in which he spent his childhood.1 Implicit in the consistency of this reaction is a disbelief that anyone, given the choice, should opt to remain in the north of England. Almond’s birthplace, however, dominated by strong working-class mores, as demonstrated in both his fiction and his fictionalised autobiographical work, Counting Stars, is fundamental to his art. It is his identification with the working-class life he portrays which gives his writing the vibrancy, depth and individuality which is indivisible from his own social roots. The poet Seamus Heaney, writing of his attachment to his home place through the eponymous mythological character of Antaeus, who gained strength from contrast with the ground, insists
Rosemary Ross Johnston

8. David Almond’s Heaven Eyes as a Complex Variation

Coming to my first reading of Heaven Eyes after having already experienced a number of other Almond novels, I found it both familiar and strange - familiar in part because it was strange, but also strange in ways less familiar. As Michael Levy says, ‘The amazing thing about Almond’s work, of course, is that everything ties together.’1 Heaven Eyes clearly occupies the same imaginative territory as the rest of Almond’s books, and similarly evokes a characteristic concrete and naturalistic yet decidedly magical atmosphere. But it stands apart from the novels for older child readers I discussed in an earlier chapter in this book by having a female protagonist. That makes a sizeable difference. It seems to lead the novel into intriguingly ambivalent combinations of features - types of characters and images - that are separate and even opposite in the novels about boys. As a result, Heaven Eyes seems even more assertive than Almond’s other novels in its claims to a meaningfulness beyond its surface events, and in its invitation for readers to attempt to interpret those events in order to discover that meaning - and even more resistant to a satisfyingly complete interpretation. After spending some time with the novel and comparing it with Almond’s other books, I think I understand a lot about it. But for all that, I also have the sense that I do not really understand it at all, that whatever interpretations I have come up with seem to describe a text much less resonant and evocative than the satisfyingly mysterious one Almond actually wrote.
Perry Nodelman

9. The Transcendent in David Almond’s Play Wild Girl, Wild Boy

David Almond apparently believes in the supernatural. His collection of autobiographical short stories, Counting Stars (2000), records instances of regular folk, the people he grew up with in and around Newcastle in northern England, meeting angels and talking with the dead. His novels, from Skellig (1998) to Heaven Eyes (2000) to Secret Heart (2001) on up to the most recent work, The True Tale of the Monster Billy Dean telt by hisself (2011) and The Boy Who Swam with Piranhas (2013), describe transcendental moments in the lives of their protagonists, moments when children discover that they have heretofore invisible angel’s wings jutting from their shoulders, moments when a miraculously preserved body recovered from the industrial slime of the polluted River Tyne in Newcastle, England comes back to life, moments when William Blake’s Tyger manifests itself in a northern woodland or an abused boy discovers he can heal the dead. David Almond also believes that the sublime is a part of ordinary life, that the most everyday matters can become extraordinary, can turn into moments of transcendence. Take the simple pleasures of gardening for example, particularly when mixed with the imagination and the sad fact of death.
Michael Levy

10. Of Writing: The True Tale of the Monster Billy Dean telt by hisself

The True Tale of the Monster Billy Dean telt by hisself was published in September 2011, with two different covers, one designed for adults (Viking) and one for the young adult market (Puffin), thus presumably implying an expectation of two different readerships. It was widely noted as David Almond’s first book for adults. The tale is told retrospectively through the voice and idiosyncratic written language of its protagonist. The bare bones of the story are revealed in a sort of brief prolegomenon, written from the perspective of the grown-up narrator who is now a father and who in the last two lines of the book puts down his paper, pencil and knife (all of which have been developed throughout the novel into strong and related textual and thematic motifs) and goes ‘to play in the water with my son’ (BD, p. 255). The title of the book is telling (no pun intended); it is explicitly labelled a ‘tale’, that is, a story that is told by a teller to an audience. In this case the actual telling of the tale to an audience of reader or readers is integral to both the story and the discourse, and the language, processes and artefacts for recording that telling in written form constitute a fundamental part of its structure, narrative and themes.
Rosemary Ross Johnston
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