A Song for Ella Grey : David Almond

A Song for Ella GreyA Song for Ella Grey by David Almond

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I think sometimes that if I were asked to direct somebody to one author in all of British children’s literature, right here, right now, then that author would be David Almond. Sometimes, yes, the shifts of the question and of the person asking and of their purpose in asking would change my response, but unerringly I come back to David Almond. Often, always. His books are anchors and I cleave to them, hand-fast for life.

I have written about David Almond before; rapturously so. A Song For Ella Grey will be no change from that rule for this book is witchcraft and Almond is a spell-caster.

I’m not even sure where to begin and I know that’s a good sign; when books make me dance around them in a feverish confusion of needing to talk, and not being able to describe how or where or what even the smallest fragment of the story is because – I forget myself. I lose myself, because this book is sensation and emotion and burning, fierce, lyrical love.

There, perhaps, I have it. A Song For Ella Grey centres on love; a retelling of Orpheus and Eurydice, but one that is locked to the landscape of north east England; the beaches of Bamburgh and the Ouseburn Valley. A book that is so fiercely of its place and revels in that place; read Ella Grey and then read The Kingdom by the Sea and you have an introduction to that beautiful, stark landscape that is not easily bettered in literary terms. I research these books, tied so defiantly to place and to path and to sand and stone, and I love them, and Ella Grey is so musical and so beautiful and so wild with its language, that I am incoherent and you should read this for this is a story so very richly and tenderly and angrily and perfectly told.

View all my reviews

News, reviews and articles from the world of Children’s Literature

Good morning!  What better way to start a Sunday then with some interesting reading? As ever, DYESTTAFTSA is here to help with the regular round-up of things you may have missed this week from the world of children’s literature.  Enjoy!

  • This is a gorgeous review of Meg Rosoff’s latest – “Picture Me Gone”. Rosoff on writing: “”Be as adventurous as you can! Don’t aim for the middle!”
  • How Stories Help Sick Kids discusses the redemptive and positive power of storytelling. I was struck by the last paragraph (sorry for the spoiler!) where they say that realising “that you can have complete transformation from a single story almost seems too magical to parents, but we do it over and over again.” The skill and transformational impact of storytelling is something to be recognised.
  • Holly Bourne wrote about love in YA fiction for the Huffington Post. Her piece “Are Happily-ever-afters in YA Novels Bad for Teenagers’ Love Lifes?” is excellent. 
  • Birmingham Library opened – and it’s GORGEOUS. Have a look at the pretty here.
  • I know it’s a Daily Mail link (sorry), but the research it refers to is really interesting “Picture books DO boost literacy”, and the original press release is available here.
  • And finally, the BEST thing in the world is happening which I am VERY excited about. The Federation of Children’s Book Groups are holding a festival in Birmingham on November 9th. I am going. You should too! You’ll get to see Micheal Morpurgo, Clara Vulliamy, David Almond, James Mayhew, Emma Chichester Clark and get to spend the day with some very booky very amazing people. What’s not to love?

If you’d like to view previous posts in this series, they’re available here. See you next time!

Slog’s Dad : A Bereavement Counsellor’s Perspective

Welcome to the second post of our Slog’s Dad special! If you missed the last one, it’s available here

I have a great pleasure in inviting Jackie to talk about this book. Jackie’s an incredibly talented bereavement counsellor based in Henley-on-Thames (Twitter, Website, Facebook) and her passion and skills never fail to impress me. She’s one of those people who is genuinely committed to what she does and so, because she was as blown away by Slog’s Dad as I was, it felt logical to invite her on to share her thoughts. And this is what she thought. 

Where to start with Slog’s Dad!

I absolutely agree with the previous post on the counterpoints it describes. The story flows so well between the illustrations and words. And yes, the story is about grief which is what initially attracted me to it. As a bereavement counsellor and book lover I am always looking for books which combine talking about death, dying and grief with child friendly and age appropriate language and illustrations.

When talking to children about death it is vital to be honest as children will make up what they don’t know and these fantasies can create anxiety and a feeling of isolation. Children can deal with harsh realities much better than grown-ups realise.

Slog’s belief that his dad has come back as he promised reminds me of the theory of children and magical thinking. Children of about primary school age sometimes strongly believe that they can influence the world around them with their thoughts (see Jean Piaget’s theory of developmental stages). This is quite common when an important person dies.

When I read the story I switched between Slog and his friend Davie’s perspective. I absolutely love the connection those two characters have and how Davie supports his friend not by ‘doing’ much but by just staying beside him. I think Davie is bewildered but also intrigued by the idea that this man on the bench could be Slog’s dad. He creates a bit of space for himself by going into Myers’, the butchers, but he is never far away. I adore the way this book is illustrated. In fact the story doesn’t start with words but with the illustrations zooming in from a view of our universe through a cloud on the inside cover to the man on the bench on page 13.

When working with children, bibliotherapy is one tool in the box of a counsellor. Stories can help us to access feelings and emotions as we connect on an individual level with the story. ‘Slog’s Dad’ doesn’t prescribe; it offers a wonderful balance between illustrations and text. The reader can choose what speaks to him most.

If you are intrigued and thinking about using the book in a therapy session I would strongly suggest that you should read the story beforehand. Reflect on it and check what is happening for you. Is it taking you to some of your own experiences as a child? What kind of feelings are you left with after putting the book down? What impact do the illustrations have on you? If they evoked strong feelings where do you think they came from? Which character did you connect with most and why?

How could it be used for grief work? You could read the story together aloud or silently. Go with the rhythm of your child. Some children will read/listen until the end, others may want to talk about certain parts of the story/illustrations right away. Gentle questions may help to discover the child’s take on the story. You could ask “I wonder what you think was the most important bit of this story.” or “I wonder whether any part is about you and your own experience.” This could be done in an individual session but also suits a group environment.

Activities around the story could include making paper-people like Slog does. They could represent the loved one that has died or the child itself. Use this activity to talk about how the child understands their loved one has died. Alternatively your children could mark parts of the body where they experience certain emotions the strongest. Colours could be used to represent feelings.

A balloon features in the story. How about an activity where the child uses either real balloons or printed/drawn pictures of one to write/draw memories shared with the dead person on it, including happy and sad ones? Offer another balloon to write about what the dead used to do/say/like or what they would like to tell them now. When finished, how about letting them fly off into the sky just like the end of the book ?

These are just a few ideas for you. You will know your children best and chose what suits their way of communication. Let me know how it went and most of all: HAVE FUN as it’s okay to grieve and have fun.

Slog’s Dad : David Almond and Dave McKean

You know, sometimes, how a book catches you? How it sits there very quietly until you notice it and then, just, holds you to it? This is one of those books.

I’ve talked about the wonder of David Almond before, and about his skill in capturing the quiet, and yet somehow immense, magic of the everyday. He makes me rampantly, vividly, awfully,  jealous of his skill. If you look back at his books that I’ve reviewed (The SavageMy Name Is MinaMouse Bird Snake Wolf), they’re all five stars. All of them. Joyously, incredibly so. And I love his work with Dave McKean. I love it with a passion that startles me. I love  the bravery of it, the wild darkness, the just-that-little-bit-on-edge feel of a McKean line. I love that they are producing such intensely superb, challenging, heart-breaking, lovely books.

It is because of that, all of that, that I am beyond thrilled to be able to talk about Slog’s Dad with you in this  post (and I am hugely indebted to Walker Books for giving me permission to use the enclosed images which truly do justice to this book). This post is the first of two which will come at the book at slightly different angles. The second post in the series is a perspective on the book from my incredibly talented friend Jackie Grant, a trained bereavement counsellor (coming tomorrow!).

Continue reading

Mouse Bird Snake Wolf : David Almond & Dave McKean

Mouse Bird Snake WolfMouse Bird Snake Wolf by David Almond

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

So I have a little story about how I came to Mouse Bird Snake Wolf. I originally came to it via Netgalley and as I am a huge fan of David Almond, I requested it and got approved. So I downloaded a copy and then through a substantial amount of user ineptitude, managed to make it unreadable. I know, right? An Achievement And A Half. However, when you’re as struck by the previous pairing of Almond and McKean as I was (seriously, go check out the wild magnificence that is The Savage,) and you’re that struck by a front cover (the front cover of Mouse Bird Snake Wolf is to die for) and synopsis, you make an effort to get hold of the book (and you make a determined effort to get hold of it in a format you cannot cack up).

So I did. And lo, it was good. Very, very good. Outstanding, even, because the thing about David Almond is that he is not afraid of being dangerous. He writes darkness very well, that insidious present darkness, the sadness and pain that hangs around every day things, but he also writes wonder. He writes stories of surmounting the darkness, of climbing that hill, of waving and not drowning. He writes stories of victory, of humanity, and of life.

I love David Almond. Can you tell? I love that he writes stories that challenge and confound and make me never quite know what comes next. And Mouse Bird Snake Wolf is full of that, it’s full of surprises. Threaded around what is a very simple, straightforward plot of children imagining things which are not in their world, are moments of utter beauty, rammpant danger and stark darkness. It is Quite Something.

The artwork of McKean though is something very special too. There’s a Dali-esque feel to some of his panels, that sort of blurring of reality and imagination, colours burning, images merging, and slightly too long limbs that don’t feel grotesque but feel somehow balletic and graceful. He’s very painterly in this, and it’s something quite special. I loved his ‘transformation’ scenes where the children imagine the new things. The children ‘look inside’ themselves, and the images come from a dark part of their thoughts and are borne to life through the power of their imagination. The wolf panel itself is a genuinely unnerving moment and it’s worthwhile, if you’re sharing this or recommending it to younger readers, to take a second and look at this moment yourself.

There’s a quote on this book which sums up everything about David Almond, and it’s one worth repeating here. “There really is nobody quite like Almond writing fiction today” (The Times). There’s not. There’s really not. David Almond is one of a kind.

View all my reviews

The Savage : David Almond / Dave McKean

The SavageThe Savage by David Almond

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The wild child phenomenon is something that’s been represented repeatedly in literature, perhaps most notably in the case of The Wild Boy of Aveyron. But it’s never been treated like this.

Almond and McKean have produced a strange, enthralling hybrid of a book. It’s not quite picture book, it’s not quite graphic novel, it’s a layer between the two – switching from one story to the other and then eventually, beautifully tightening the gaps between the two. I won’t attempt to write a synopsis of it, because I don’t think that would do it justice. What I will say is that it deals with themes of masculinity, bullying, and the real / fantasy world but do note that it’s definitely not one for younger children, as it contains scenes of physical violence and intense imagery. And what I will also say is that The Savage is one of those books to experience, and experience it you must.

It’s stunning. My love for David Almond grows with every book of his I read. What he does so very well is he writes the primal magic of childhood. Remember the days when snow was amazing and not something that made your commute impossible? Almond does. And here he produces something quite stunning, drawing in elements of the wild child myth but also moments reminiscent of The Lord of The Flies and even at points bits that made me think of Apocalypse Now.

The artwork is what completes this though. It’s similarly outstanding. McKean’s work is exuberant, viciously so. It revels in telling the story and it’s beautiful. Some of the moments where the Savage is exploring the town are full of a kinetic, primal energy that falls off the page. McKean’s sense of the visual, the construction of his images is superb. What’s particularly stunning is that the majority of these images are told in such a limited colour palette. We have forest scenes, coloured all in greens, shifting from light misty pale washes for the background, all the way down to dark, almost black shadows cast across peoples faces. And then, at night, the darkness is expressed in tones of blues, from light to dark, and then, when required, punching straight into great swathes of empty, page swallowing blacks.

This is outstanding in every way. I read. I cried. I gasped. And I fell in love with Almond. Again.

View all my reviews