I read Skellig when I was in junior school myself. I remember being entranced with the concept, where the main character nurses a strange half-angel half-owl creature he finds in the garage. The only interesting thing I’ve ever found in my garage is a tin of beans with an expiry date from before I was born. The detail in Skellig – minute and intriguing – that most sticks in my mind is the creature’s mysterious demanding of 27 and 53, which turn out to be the numbers on a Chinese food menu. The novel has a splattering of William Blake in a suburban environment.
I met David Almond for the first time at Edinburgh Festival, where he gave a talk about adaptations of books into other mediums. He gave the talk with fellow children’s author Michael Morpurgo, writer of books such as War Horse and Private Peaceful. It was a busy talk and the audience never ran out of questions, nor the authors out of answers. But it seemed that Morpurgo dominated the discussion and Almond was sidelined.
At his St Andrews talk, Almond took centre spot and captivated the crowd with his readings and audience engagement. It was a pleasant change that the group was very small in number. I think due to little event marketing and the fact that the venue was extremely hard to find – heading there reminded me of going to Hagrid’s hut in Harry Potter: past a collection of historic buildings, adjacent to a playing field, through a forbidden forest. It may have been a quest to find, but it was worth it in the end.
Among his other books, Almond discussed his new book The Colour of the Sun. I recently started reading The Colour of the Sun, which was recommended to me at Edinburgh Book Festival by a librarian who reads children’s literature extensively for the Carnegie Medal.
In his talk, Almond explained why he wrote The Colour of the Sun. He grew up in the North of England, and whenever anyone asked him what he wanted to do when he grew up, Almond said he wanted to be an author. “You, an author?!” they would always reply. “What can a boy from Tyneside ever write about?”. Tyneside, that’s what. The Colour of the Sun is about a boy who wanders around his Northern town, meeting people and talking to them. The quote on the dust jacket, from chapter one, is Davie’s mother kicking him out for the day to explore, saying: “The day is long, the world is wide, you’re young and free.” It encapsulates the idea succinctly.
The book is deeply rooted in Northern England, a world where girls are “lasses” and babies are “bairns”, and which gives anyone with a connection to the North a pang of familiarity. The story is highly imaginative and upbeat, though it has tense encounters like that with the Killens who seem like characters straight out of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. This gives it an appeal for younger and older readers. My favourite encounter is when Davie talks to the priest Paddy Kelly, from the Hills of blessed Kerry. The priest is in turmoil: he doubts his belief in God because he is in love with a woman from Tyneside.
Almond talked about the mechanics of creating novels. He discussed our ability to create images in our minds from simple words like “tree” or “field”. He held out his hand at his side and told us to imagine a boy, then moved his hand lower and lower as we imagined the boy getting smaller and smaller, younger and younger, until it was a tiny baby. Almond kindly gave this imaginary baby to a member of the audience to hold during the rest of the talk.
He showed us different versions of his work, which for any budding author is an interesting behind-the-scenes experience. Almond showed his manuscript-like typed up draft of The Colour of the Sun, then under a work-in-progress title. He said he often whittled down sentences so that they fit until the end of the line rather than stopping in the middle of the page, because he preferred the way they looked. He showed us his notebook, where he jots down ideas and draws things to give him inspiration on how to continue a story. When writing about a field, behind his notes he would use a green pencil to draw a patch of lines on his book to represent the grass; or when stuck on the symbolism of a duck, he coloured it in yellow and realised that it linked with the colour of the sun which crowned the top of the page.
Almond’s latest book, War is Over, has just been released. Pick it up, because if Almond has taught us anything, it’s that the day is long, the world is wide, you’re young and free.