David Almond: Flying Across the Tyne
David Almond’s new book, My Dad’s a Birdman, contains echoes of his first novel, Skellig. Like it, My Dad’s a Birdman explores the line between reality and fantasy and the power of familial love; it also features a man with wings.
But the new book - Almond’s first for seven- to-11-year-olds - is a much lighter read despite its serious themes.
Since her mother’s death, Lizzie’s father has had trouble coping with life. His erratic behaviour is amusing at times and alarming at others. He becomes obsessed with entering the Great Human Bird Competition, making wings and eating bugs and worms to get himself into the right frame of mind.
While the other competitors hope their contraptions and scientific calculations will carry them across the Tyne, Jackie Crow relies only on the wings he has made out of feathers and his faith in their ability to keep him airborne.
Initially worried about her father’s behaviour, Lizzie is won over by his devotion to his quest, and their joint project enables him to once again experience joy.
The image of the birdman is one that has attracted Almond since he was a child. ‘Ever since time began there have been images and stories of people with wings,’ he says. ‘I think it’s the craziness of it all and the sense of transcendence and aspiration.
Visually all the pictures of birdmen have been stunning, and some of those movies of people putting wings on and peddling bicycles with wings. It seems a very human thing, because on the one hand it’s totally barmy, but it expresses a totally human aspiration to go higher.
The allusion to the story of Icarus is unmistakable – and the myth is referred to overtly in Skellig - but Almond’s new birdman has a happier ending than his Greek counterpart. ‘I’ve always loved that story. I think I heard it as a child and totally understood the desire to fly.
'Growing up in the North East the sea was very close to us, so we’d stand on cliffs and look down at the water and wonder, “What if I just stepped off and flapped my arms? What would happen?” We never did.’
My Dad’s a Birdman originated as a play for under-fives. When Skellig was being staged at the Young Vic Almond realised he could revisit some of its themes in a new work without creating a sequel, which he felt Skellig didn’t need.
When he later thought of turning My Dad’s a Birdman into a book, he envisaged it as a picture book. ‘I was thinking of the space of the pages almost like a theatre, but when I tried to do it in that way the story wouldn’t fit. It needed more narrative, more story. So I left it alone and didn’t do anything with it.’
At the time he was writing Clay, which he found an arduous process, in part because much of it ‘came from right deep down. It took a lot out of me.’
When he finished Clay, he didn’t have another idea immediately ready to work on, so he took out the script of My Dad’s a Birdman and wrote “An ordinary spring morning in 12 Lark Lane.” Four days later he had written the entire book; Clay had taken him two years.
‘After Clay came out, some of the reviews said that I had lost hope, and I thought, “What a load of rubbish”. As I was writing My Dad’s a Birdman I was thinking, “Aha, try this one then.” ’
The character of Lizzie became older in the prose version of the story than she had been in the play, and Almond found himself writing for readers of a corresponding age.
One of the things I love about writing for this age group is the rhythms and the beats of language that you can get into. It’s got a very restricted vocabulary, but you just have to get the language to work in the best way that you can.
'It’s quite a short text, about 15,000 words, so it’s like writing a long poem or a short story, so the form seemed to fit to me. I could have done a much longer, more apparently complicated novel, but I didn’t want to.
'One of the great things about being a children’s writer is that there are all kinds of possible forms. You can write long or short books, picture books, plays. You can do all kinds of experimentation with language and story shape.’
‘I was also attracted by the idea of working with an illustrator; I just loved that idea. When I was reading with my daughter, Freya, some of the books I loved were illustrated fiction: Shirley Hughes and Cressida Cowell.
I love that blend of pictures and text and the ability to be charming and barmy all at the same time. I think sometimes we get too solemn and precious about what we’re trying to write for kids.
'You hear some people talk about children’s books and say that they can appeal to a range of people outside the children’s world, which is fine, but we also need books which are directed straight at children.
'When I began with Skellig, it was a children’s book. Then it began to appear in the young adult section. It was the same book, but it changed classification. I thought if I’m going to be a children’s writer I should write a book that can’t be interpreted as a crossover.’
‘This book and my next one, The Savage, which are apparently for younger children and are quite restricted in terms of the length, could well be the best things that I’ve done.
'Beneath the story is stuff that is quite interesting and complicated, and held within simple story shapes and simple language. There’s almost a stripping away of some of the stuff in longer stories. You come to something essential and maybe profound as well.’
The illustrator of My Dad’s a Birdman, Polly Dunbar, was recommended by Walker Books, publishers of Dunbar’s own picture books as well as Almond’s new novel.
As soon as the author saw the first sketches he knew her illustrations would be just right. ‘They make the book fly and dance more vividly in the reader’s mind, I think. They don’t dictate, they don’t say “You have to see it in this way.” They seem to me to be light and free and funny and hugely helpful to the text.
'They seem to come from the same place as the words do. They seem to have the same currents underneath, and the same dynamism.’
Speaking about her own work, Dunbar has said she finds that young children easily accept ambiguity, while adults often find it difficult to come to terms with. Almond agrees.
Children would think, “Somebody’s going to try to fly across the River Tyne - of course they are. They’re making wings - yes of course.” I think they do accept things.
'When Skellig came out it was only ever adults who said Skellig was just imaginary. Kids just accepted it, because children exist in this frame where they know they don’t know everything, so they’re able to explore all kinds of possibilities about the world and themselves, which offers great opportunities for writers and illustrators.
'Like Father Christmas: children believe in him and don’t believe in him at the same time. So much of the world must be like that with them until they grow up and throw away some of that credulity and become grown up and sensible.’
Almond’s own childhood in the North East in the 1950s and 60s has been a rich source of material for him, and, like his other books, My Dad’s a Birdman is infused with the landscape and spirit of the author’s formative years.
'Maybe that notion of flying across the Tyne was planted a long long time ago when I was a boy going backwards and forwards across the river.’
‘Certainly the Tyne features prominently,’ he says. ‘I grew up in the south side of the Tyne and came to live on the north side and as a child you’re constantly crossing the river on bridges. Maybe that notion of flying across the Tyne was planted a long long time ago when I was a boy going backwards and forwards across the river.’
I’ve plundered my past and my landscape, my language, my childhood, and the longer I’ve gone on, I’ve found something in that past that has driven the books I’ve produced.
'I learned so much from Flannery O’Connor about how to be a writer from a specific place. She said if you’re a writer from the (American) South you have to struggle with the notion of the South like Jacob’s struggle with the Angel, in an attempt to extract some kind of blessing.
'And I think that’s what I’ve been doing. You use it and try to bring it out, not to explain it, but to help you to produce stories. Also there’s this odd thing that your imagination is very free, but it gains its true freedom when it recognises some of the limitations that are imposed on it by your own background and your own upbringing.’
In his work, as in his life, Almond has been preoccupied with the connections between reality, the imagination and faith. But whatever religious implications there are in his books, he says, first and foremost they must be rooted in reality.
‘This is the world. This is the miraculous world. So whatever happens, whatever mystical implications there may be, they’re for this world. I don’t believe in another world. I think this is the place where everything happens.
'I think this world is so stunning and so amazing and also so horrible and so brutal, and that’s what we have to come to terms with. As writers we have to take that world and put it in our books and show it in all its wonder and magnificence.
'In My Dad’s a Birdman they’re not trying to fly across the Tyne to try to reach heaven, they’re trying to have a good time. They’re not trying to transcend this world, they’re trying to leap into the wonderful parts of this world. They’re trying to leap into happiness in this world.’
David Almond is the highly acclaimed author of Skellig, The Savage, Clay, My Name Is Mina, My Dad's a Birdman, Slog's Dad and many other novels, stories and plays. His books are translated into almost forty languages and are widely adapted for stage and screen. His numerous awards include the Carnegie Medal, two Whitbread Children's Book Awards and Le Prix Sorcieres, and in 2010 he gained the Hans Christian Andersen Award, the highest international prize for children's authors. David lives with his family in Hexham, Northumberland.