What has the library ever done for us?

Lego library

Even lego figures go to the library.

There’s a lot of anxiety about libraries here in the UK. Like all the most valuable social resources in this country, they are under threat of closure through ever-decreasing lack of funding and the current vicious cuts in public spending. Library closure is rarely off the agenda, but it’s usually in a local context – now closures are becoming a national reality. In advance celebration of National Libraries Day on February 9th, I wanted to add my voice to the clamour of dismayed outrage, and relate how a library literally (ho ho) helped save my sanity.

It was only when I started to plan this post that I realised how consistent a backdrop to my life libraries have been. I still have a special pull-out from the Boston Globe in 1973 about  Boston Public Library, which features a photo of ‘child receiving individual attention’ – that child being me! (Incidentally Boston Public Library was on my ‘to do’ list while on holiday in New England last summer, and my heart actually started to beat faster when I stood in their incredible children’s section, 38 years after that photo was taken).

Exterior shot of Boston Public Library

Boston Public Library, July 2011

Libraries are about borrowing books (for free! That bit still floors me with its glorious embodiment of socialism), but they are about so much more. I have revised for and sat exams in libraries; I have written assignments, dissertations and Important Documents in libraries. Pre-internet I searched newspapers in libraries for job vacancies, and saved on heating bills by writing job applications in libraries. As a writer I have read my books to groups of children in libraries – I feel a personal affection for the libraries which have played their roles in the story of my life so far (with the possible exception of my university library, which was absolutely freezing, even in the summer, and where I would work wearing fingerless gloves and a large scarf).

Now I know the library has a role beyond providing books (free ones – did I mention that?), large tables and eager small children. Three years ago we moved out of London to a small town where I knew not a soul. I was on maternity leave with a baby and a toddler, I had left my closest friends, my support network of other mums, my work, my house, the last ten years of my life, the city that I loved. My brother was seriously ill. As if trying to increase my feelings of isolation, the phone company seemed completely unable to synchronise technology so that a phone and the internet worked in our home for a month after we moved in.

Long days alone with tiny children have defeated tougher women than me. By 10am I had been up for over four hours and had exhausted every ounce of creative play in my body. We’d done snacks, we’d done DVDs, we’d covered the entire bottom floor in jigsaws. I felt like Leia in the Star Wars scene where the walls of the rubbish chute start closing together, except there was no R2D2 to stop the walls squashing the brain cells out of my body. So every day at 10.30am we went to the playground, and then to the library. The library shimmered on the far side of the park like Oz, waiting to give me back my brain. Stepping through the doors was like walking into a huge hug. After an hour we would return, my brain restored, clutching new books to take us through the afternoon.

In the evenings I returned to the library alone, this time making my way upstairs to the computers and free (there’s that word again) internet. I would stay there until closing time, emailing my friends and re-connecting with the world I had left behind. Then I would cycle home, calmer and satisfied and able to face the next, year-long day.

I honestly believe that at a lonely and stressful time of my life, knowing that I could go to the library whenever I wanted for however long I wanted, with children and by myself, helped me cope without succumbing to depression. It helped me establish a routine in a new place. It became the familiar, the constant. It gave me a connection; to my old life and to my new one: after six weeks of daily visits, I met the person who became my first friend in this new town, and we – and our children – remain friends today.

Libraries are our nation’s collective sanity. They are therapy when you can’t afford therapy. They are the most accessible and non-judgemental institutions in existence. If we lose our libraries we don’t just lose potential knowledge, we lose the future of our country’s mental good health.

Me being read to, Boston Public Library 1973

‘Child receives individual attention’.     Boston Public Library, 1973

Update: there was such a tremendous amount of interest in this post! As a result you can read another piece by me about writing in libraries, published by the very lovely people at the Library as Incubator Project.

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No break in the sun: supporting child runaways

Happy New Year! I was going to do a writer’s resolutions-type post to welcome in 2013, but a more worthy cause than myself caught my eye.

The website Mumsnet is working with the charity Railway Children and Aviva to raise awareness of children running away from home in the UK. They’ve asked for blogs about any aspects of the issue, with the incentive that for each blog post Aviva will donate £2 to Railway Children. They will also donate another £2 for each comment on the post, and for any tweets or mentions on Facebook. How could I (and you, oh reader) ignore a cause like that?

I have no direct experience of children (defined by Railway Children as young people under 16) running away. Growing up, any notions I had of ‘running away’ were based mostly around images of animals setting off from home with all their belongings wrapped in a red spotty handkerchief tied to the end of a stick. I once ran a hundred yards up the road on holiday after my dad got cross with me, which demonstrates the extent of my ignorance.

But when I started to think about this, I realised that there was a book that made a great impact on my understanding of children who might feel desperate enough to run away. This was Break in the Sun by Bernard Ashley. I first came across it as a serial on children’s television – a quick Google search shows me that this would have been in 1981, so I’d have been 10 or 11 years old. Annoyingly, I can’t find my copy of the book, which showed a still from the series of the heroine, Patsy Bligh, so I can’t remind myself of it properly.

From what I remember, the story centres around Patsy who is miserable at home with her worn out, stressed out mother (with new baby) and stepfather Eddy who spends his time watching TV and shouting at Patsy. Her anxiety reveals itself as she starts to wet the bed, and she decides to run away to Margate where she and her mother used to live with an old lady, Mrs Broadley. Patsy is convinced that if she can find the old lady again all her problems will be solved. En route she hooks up with a travelling theatre company who agree to help her out (she tells them some elaborate lies about, I think, meeting up with her grandmother), but her idyll is threatened when she discovers that Eddy is trying to find her and she must stay one step ahead of him.

Break in the Sun was and is an extraordinary book. It portrayed Patsy’s anxiety and unhappiness so vividly – I still remember feeling her terror when she wakes up in a wet bed and anticipates her stepfather finding out. It showed how much children become conditioned by the way adults treat them – Patsy believes that she is useless, a baby, pathetic, no good, because that’s what Eddy tells her – and how hard they find it to trust another adult who might be able to help. It also shows how fixated children become on one thing which they think will be the solution to everything (in Patsy’s case, finding Mrs Broadley), and how at an end they can feel their lives to be when reality shatters the dream.

The remarkable thing about Break in the Sun though, was that it not only gives the young reader an insight into Patsy’s life, but also into the motives, fears and experiences that drive adult behaviour. Through Patsy’s (and therefore our) eyes, Eddy is an angry, hard man. As the story unfolds, and its perspective shifts to follow Eddy, we discover a man brutalised by a childhood with a violent father (I can’t remember, but he may have been an alcoholic), who as a child valued his own life so little that he took literally life-threatening risks, embittered by the overwhelming responsibilities of a new wife, new baby and step-daughter. We come to understand Eddy a little better, and realise that he is a gentler, softer and kinder man than we, Patsy, and even he assume.

What a powerful book then, aimed at youngish readers (there wasn’t really a YA classification in those days, but as Patsy is 11 the book was certainly for pre-teens), that is nonetheless sophisticated enough to enable at least one reader (i.e. me), to understand the perspectives of the mistreated and the mistreater (the latter is the clumsiest of words, but I hesitate to use ‘abused and abuser’ as Patsy is not abused in the sense that we use the word today), and the complexities of emotions that lead to desperation and unhappiness.

In a sense, Break in the Sun belongs to a more apparently innocent age, and is aimed at younger readers. This means that there is little hint of the potential risks that a child runaway may face – sexual exploitation, drug and alcohol dependency and violence are just a few highlighted by Railway Children. It also has a happy ending – Eddy is given the opportunity to reflect on his own childhood as a result of Patsy running away, and of how this might have affected his treatment of Patsy and the two eventually develop a mutual respect of one another. I’m sure that the stories of some child runaways also end happily, or are at least resolved in a way that will make that child’s adult life an easier one. But of course there will also be those whose stories aren’t reconciled so easily and these are the children that need help and support.

Are there other children’s or YA books that you have read that you would also recommend to raise awareness? Do you have any experience, either directly or indirectly, of children running away?Remember that for every comment posted Aviva will donate £2 to Railway Children – here’s a breakdown of how comments could translate into help:

£1 could buy a warm drink for a vulnerable child on the streets (one comment)
£5 could buy a warm meal for a young person staying in a refuge (three comments)
£10 could fund resources for 30 young people at a runaway prevention workshop (five comments)
£25 could help keep one of our workers on the streets, seeking out children who may be at risk (13 comments)
£50 could pay for 1:1 support sessions to help a child work through their issues (25 comments)

Update on 17th January – I’ve started reading Break in the Sun again, and it’s even better than I remember.

Sid naps in a pit: making a din about phonics

My son has finally started bringing ‘real’ reading books home. I say ‘finally’, because he has been absolutely desperate to read ever since his sister learned. I put ‘real’ in inverted commas, as his book the other day made me start questioning our whole approach to reading in the UK.

So here I go, wading into the ever-raging argument about synthetic phonics. With my educator hat on I’ve been fascinated by the issue for a long time (so shoot me). Since my own children started to read though, I have found myself developing new opinions as a parent, and as a writer who wants to engage kids in books, stories and language.

I have a theory: not that many people, least of all the government ministers who advocate its use so emphatically, actually understand much about synthetic phonics, or indeed how children learn to read full stop. And yet a quick Google search will find it alternately heralded as the bedrock to our children’s educational achievements, and reviled as the root of all literary evil.

Many years ago I did a Masters at the Institute of Education called ‘Literacy learning and literacy difficulties‘. It was all about how young children acquire literacy – what goes on in the brain as they learn to read and write. I was taught by some of the most renowned early years’ literacy experts in the country, if not the world. These were people at the cutting edge of research into literacy development. And yet they would regularly remind us of two things: 1) English is a difficult language in which to read and spell and 2) we don’t know how children do it (or rather, we have a great deal of knowledge about how children do it, but as every child is different, there is no conclusive way of saying ‘this is how children learn to read and write’, and no one way of teaching them).

Enter ‘synthetic phonics’ (the ‘synthetic’ bit by the way, is nothing to do with phonics being manmade or prone to irritation, but because we ‘synthetise’, or ‘blend’, the letter sounds). In the UK this is how schools are required to teach children to read, from about six weeks in to their school career. The UK government is adamant that this is the only way to get children reading, to the extent that they ‘match funding’ for schools who choose teaching programmes that meet a set of criteria for phonics teaching. The motto on phonics is ‘first and fast’, so that children rattle through the letter sounds (not the names – that comes later) and very quickly learn to blend or put the sounds together to form words. Bingo – by Christmas in their first term they are reading. By the end of Year 1 (when children are 5 and 6), there is a statutory ‘phonics check‘ (aka ‘a total waste of time’, in my humble opinion).

Now, I am lucky enough to have two children who love books, love reading, want to read and have done and are doing so quickly and relatively easily. On the face of it, phonics works, as it does appear to have quick results. For children like my children.

But what if you have a child for whom reading does not come so quickly and easily? Or a child who is more like my son, who understands the mechanics of phonics, but sees words much more holistically and therefore knows what certain, unphonetic words say, just because he has seen them many times and knows their shapes (‘the’, for example, or, bizzarely, ‘desert’). Broadly speaking, there are two routes that need to develop for a child to become a fluent reader: one is certainly phonetic, but the other is visual. If one route is more developed than the other, a child will not read fluently until the other route has caught up. If, for example, a five year-old’s visual route is highly developed but their phonetic route doesn’t develop in the same way for another eight months, that child will struggle to read phonetically – which means that they will not learn to read by Christmas.*

Why does all this matter? Surely the most important thing is that kids learn to read, and that teachers have a method by which to teach them. Synthetic phonics is proven to work, so where’s the problem? Well I have a couple of problems. Firstly, the method doesn’t take into account that the Reception year (that is, the first year that children enter school), will contain children who are almost a year apart in age (because of the school year in the UK going from September 1st to August 31st, a just four year-old could start school at the same time as an almost five year-old). Secondly, the method assumes that all children develop the phonetic route to reading first and most easily, and that they all develop it at the same time – and yet, how could this conformity be, given that we’ve already established that some children are a year younger than others? There is a world of developmental difference between that just four year-old and almost five year-old.

But there’s another issue that goes beyond basic development. My son’s recent reading books have only contained phonetically-spelt, two or three letter words. This means he is reading sentences like ‘Nan sat in a pit’ and ‘Sid nips in’. He could decode these words but then got very upset – “I don’t understand. What’s a pit? Why did Nan sit in it? What is nips?” At one point Sid’s sister Sal sits on a pin that Sid has strategically placed on the sofa and boy does she get ‘mad’. Apologies to anyone reading from north America, but we don’t use ‘mad’ in this country when we mean ‘cross’! This insistence on purely phonetic reading is leading kids to read stories that aren’t just dull, but use words that they rarely encounter. It limits rather than widens their vocabulary and exploration of language.

It also, I should say, leads to some shocking spelling (I am a card-carrying pedant about spelling). My daughter’s spelling is improving, probably because she now reads so voraciously, but last year all her spellings were phonetic. This is fine to begin with, but at some point children have got to learn that English rarely sticks to phonetic rules! Sometimes you just have to know how a word looks to spell it right.

I asked a few friends with similar-aged children for their experiences and opinions on phonics, and had a really interesting response. For some, it ‘really worked’ and their child can read. For others, especially those with children who don’t take to reading so quickly and easily, it has become a frustrating and at times miserable process. I was interested in the experience of one friend who now lives in Spain, who says that her son’s school aren’t particularly focussing on teaching them to read, despite Spanish being a purely phonetic language (although perhaps it’s because it’s purely phonetic that they don’t need such a focus?) Another friend who lived in the US last year, says that her daughter was baffled by phonics on returning to the school in the UK and still uses (non-phonetic) songs taught to her in America to help her with spellings.

I would be interested in what you think of the issue, wherever you live. Are we the only country that is so obsessed with a purely phonics approach? Are we setting ourselves up for a generation of adults with ropey spelling and limited language use? Yes, phonics works, for some children, on one level. But where is the joy in reading that Sid sits on a pin in a pit and Sal is mad?

*I should add – when I talk about children who struggle, I’m not talking about those with identifiable special needs, either literacy-related or any other. I mean children who have no particular special need, who nonetheless are not ‘reading by Christmas’.

All the book’s a stage

Let’s say, just for this sake of this blog, that I had to choose the three things that I love above all others. These would be my kids, reading and the theatre – not necessarily in that order.

The last decade has seen a real explosion in children’s books being adapted for the stage.   Of course this is nothing new – we’ve always had the classic favourites: Peter Pan; Wind in the Willows, and, of course, fairytale pantomimes at Christmas (although I’m not sure that pantomimes can – or even would want to – be dignified with the word ‘adaptations’). The theatre just seemed to sit up and take notice of books for children and young adults in a much more dramatic way (sorry) in the 90s and 00s.

I first noticed this trend with YA novels when the National Theatre in London started to adapt them for its Christmas show, almost as if they realised that there was this whole potential audience out there that they hadn’t bargained for. Here was a way of selling tickets to young adults, their parents, their schools and to other adults who also read YA novels. Publishers had already cottoned on as they’d started to refer to YA novels such as Phillip Pullman’s Northern Lights as ‘crossover’ books, bringing out versions with more ‘adult’ covers (and more adult prices), supposedly to stop people being embarrassed at reading ‘children’s books’ (personally I have always read my children’s and YA books in public with pride, but I digress). The National Theatre staged His Dark Materials based on Pullman’s trilogy in 2003/4, followed by the magnificent Coram Boy in 2005/6, culminating of course with the unsurpassable War Horse in 2007which continues to run. The RSC‘s children’s cash cow finally came with Matilda, on which I shall gush unreservedly another time.

Before I had children I spent much of my life at the theatre, so when I had toddlers I was delighted to discover the increasing number of theatre adaptations of picture books which seemed to appear everywhere. There’s the high profile stagings of the most popular – The Gruffalo, The Tiger Who Came to Tea and We’re Going on a Bear Hunt – but I have also seen some incredibly good adaptations of picture books on a much smaller scale. The Little Angel Theatre in London’s Islington, for example, has been quietly and innovatively staging shows for children for over 50 years. A while ago we saw their adaptation of Eileen Browne‘s picture book Handa’s Hen, and I still maintain that it was one of the most beautifully staged shows I have ever seen. It captured the simple beauty of the book (which has exquisite illustrations), but also went beyond the restrictions of the page and created a whole new dimension to the story.

I am not a dramatist or a playwright, but I am fascinated by the process of adapting children’s books into plays. The adapter shoulders such an impossible responsibility. You must adapt a form that has been written to exist in a particular way, i.e. statically on the page. In the case of picture books, images and words complement one another, and one could not work without the other – they set the tone together. You must recreate these static images in a medium that relies on movement and space.

You are also taking an experience that most often takes place intimately – either in private, or between a child and parent/carer, and trying to interpret the response to that experience of a young child – and who knows what goes on in a three year-old’s head most of the time? You are then setting up a different kind of response, i.e. that of the child to a play, while – and this is essential for me – not losing the essence of the original book and experience of reading it.

Add to this that the average picture book for young children probably takes no more than about five minutes to read, and yet you must fill at least half an hour of stage time without deviating too far from the original story or concept. You must delight and engage a demanding, impatient and distractible audience, while at the same time not boring their parents to death. You can’t let down the child who asks for ‘We’re Going on a Bear Hunt’ to be read to her fifteen times in a row and falls asleep with it on her pillow.

And yet I am continually astounded by the quality of children’s theatre and the sensitivity that goes into adapting picture books. So many adaptations that I’ve seen have treated both books and children with such respect and interpreted the stories in such endlessly creative and clever ways. I’m pathetically sentimental, so I’ve often become tearful watching my children’s responses to adaptations of favourite picture books, probably because I also invest so much myself in those adaptations (I agreed to see Coram Boy with reluctance, as I was so nervous about them messing up such an incredible book).

I will end though, with a story. In 2003 I was on a train travelling south, not long after I had first read Skellig (all posts lead back to Skellig), which was haunting my thoughts. I sat opposite a guy who was reading what looked like a script. When he put it down on the table I could see the title – Skellig. It seemed like fate – we started chatting – he was travelling from Newcastle to London to audition for the part of Michael in the Young Vic’s forthcoming production. We talked about the book, about his acting and my writing. At Kings Cross we wished one another luck in our dreams and went our separate ways.

A few months later I dragged a friend along to see Skellig at the Young Vic. I told her the story of the actor on the train, and we speculated about whether he’d got the job. He had, and he played the part to perfection. My friend had a lot more chutzpah than me, and persuaded me to hang around the stage door afterwards to congratulate him. I was horrified – he was successful – he wouldn’t remember me, a random passenger on a train many months ago. Out he came, laughing with his actor friends, saw me, and gave me a hug. “Of course I remember you!” he cried, “You’re going to write lots of books!”

Books and theatre – two of my great loves creating one of the nicest experiences I have ever had.

(And if you want to look him up, he’s called Kevin Wathen).

“The first real adventure we’ve ever had in our lives!”

Enid Blyton. There, I’ve said it. Was there ever a more dreadful and more brilliant writer for children? Is there anyone in the UK under the age of about 80 who hasn’t had an Enid Blyton phase in their lives? (I was going to say anyone under 60, then a quick glance at The Adventures of the Wishing Chair shows me it was published in 1937).

Until the wishing chair fluttered on its red wings into our lives, I had been feeling quite negative towards EB. Yes, I’d devoured the stories as a kid – for me it started with the Secret Seven, who were quickly ditched for the Famous Five, Malory Towers and the ‘…of Adventure‘ books (Castle… Island… Circus… – you get the idea). Unlike other much-loved books from my childhood though, my general feelings on remembering them were ones of disdain and self-righteous horror at her sexism, racism and, most of all, iffy writing style. I have to say I half dreaded the day that she returned to my home, and I wasn’t going to be the one to welcome her back. It turned out to be sooner than I anticipated when my daughter’s teacher read the class some Wishing Chair stories in Year 1 (so fortunately I am absolved of responsibility).

Well, I owe Enid Blyton half an apology. My children begged me to read Adventures of the Wishing Chair as their bedtime story, so I put aside my literary snobbery, promising myself I would challenge any reference to soppy girls, women’s work, swarthy gypsies and men of the house. And I was right – these are not ‘well-written’ books. Events are utterly illogical – fairies and pixies co-exist with humans quite happily and no questions are ever asked as to how or why this could be. Fortunate coincidences occur, ‘luckily’ is used to move the story on whenever a sticky situation arises, things happen for no apparent reason and the characterisation of characters is minimal. The text is littered with stereotypes and inconsistencies, and I couldn’t say the pixie’s name (‘Chinky’) without wincing and doing a silent mea culpa.

And yet as I read I found myself developing a grudging respect for Ms Blyton’s abilities. This has been said before, but she really does write as if through the eyes of a child. My children are quite tough little souls, with a ‘take no prisoners’ approach to magic. But they did not once question whether these brownies and fairies and gnomes were real, or how they came to be living in the garden. They didn’t wonder at the geographical location of the strange and marvellous countries to which the wishing chair flies, they accepted the existence of spinning houses, talking clocks and magic shrinking pills.

The story development, structure and even (limited) character development of the books is strangely satisfying. Scary characters don’t stay scary for long and are always defeated, and every tale ends reassuringly. Mollie, Peter and Chinky are friends, but they also have spats and fallings-out and arguments that are remarkably similar to those my kids have. The chapters are short enough for a newly-independent reader to tackle alone, and long enough to provide a satisfying story before bed. At the end of the day when I’m usually tired and low on patience, I actually found myself wanting to read another chapter.

In the summer, my daughter discovered an anthology of the Magic Faraway Tree in a Norfolk secondhand bookshop. “Three books in one!” she gasped, and I didn’t have the heart not to buy it. We barely heard from her for the rest of the holiday. She now carries it around with her like a comfort blanket – a metaphor for what I think Enid Blyton offers, and why she endures. She is safe, secure and escapist, the childish equivalent of wrapping yourself in a large blanket with a glass of wine and a copy of ‘Grazia’.

Update on 24th December: The Magic Faraway Tree is being serialised on the radio over two weeks. My daughter is almost more excited at the prospect than about Father Christmas.

On reading favourite childhood books to your children

Since the day my children first drew breath I have been waiting to read them my favourite childhood books. No, really. Patience is not a virtue I possess. It was fun with the picture books – The Tiger Who Came to Tea, Where the Wild Things Are, Mog, The Hungry Caterpillar and the rest. But as we move through each phase of literacy and development and get closer to the big-hitters, I can hardly contain my excitement.

As you might have gathered if you read this blog regularly, books from my childhood and young adulthood are hugely important to me and who I am. Certain books have influenced my values and choices, formed some of my most influential memories, contributed to the person I’ve become. I love the idea of my kids getting older so I can introduce them to the authors who meant the most to me.

On the other hand there’s a real anxiety. What if they don’t like the books I loved, or don’t get them, or find them dated, or simply aren’t interested? Books can be pivotal in forming relationships – love the one I couldn’t live without and I love you. Love the one I threw across the room in disgust and our friendship is doomed. If my daughter felt no affection for Pippi Longstocking would this lessen our bond?

Well, we’ve done Pippi Longstocking and thankfully they loved it (despite my hasty editing out of some of the shockingly racist language). Roald Dahl is a guaranteed hit and luckily they appreciated my absolute favourite, Danny the Champion of the World (“Why are you crying?” my son asked in awe as I choked through the last line of the final chapter). We’ve done Gobbolino the Witch’s Cat (a lot wordier than I remember), and the little-known (but much loved by me) The Tale of Holly and Ivy which had my daughter transfixed. And now I’ve finally taken the plunge with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

Yes, I know it’s not the first one in the series. Yes, I know The Magician’s Nephew is possibly better. But they’re only 6 and 4, and I’m honestly not sure they’d get all the nuances of the first book. It’s also quite frightening in places – Jadis with her bare arms and giant stature standing amid the ruins of a dead city terrified me 35 years ago. And anyway, this is the order in which I read them and it never did me any harm. It probably made me appreciate both books more, in fact – The Magician’s Nephew is almost like a prequel to the more famous Lion.

So I started the tale of Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy at bedtime this evening, with, I’ll admit, some trepidation. The kids listened, they asked lots of questions about fauns, and about dryads, and about who would be next to go into the wardrobe. They were very specific about the children’s ages, and who had been my favourite when I was a little girl (Lucy, obviously). Strangely they didn’t ask what was meant by ‘Daughter of Eve’, so we’ll save that piece of theology for another day (I’d better brush up, as there’ll be plenty more as we proceed through). But most importantly they wanted another chapter, and when I kissed my son goodnight I noticed him eyeing up the wardrobe in the corner of his bedroom with a curiosity I’d not seen before….

Anyone out there read old favourites to their kids? How did they (and you) react?

A quick evening post in praise of David Almond

Driving home from the allotment as the light was fading this afternoon I had the joy of listening to David Almond on Radio 4 talking about Skellig. If you’ve read any of David Almond’s books, or are a fan (as I am) you’ll know that the setting of his novels – Tyneside in the north-east of England – is as strong as his characters. He speaks with a wonderful Geordie accent, and his short reading of an extract from the book was beautiful to listen to.  He seemed to add a whole new layer of meaning to an already layered book, simply through the strength of his voice.

As he was talking about Skellig and answering questions put to him partly by the presenter and partly by the audience (old and young) in the studio, two things came across strongly to me. Firstly was that this is a writer who absolutely knows his characters and his story, and as a result has created completely ‘real’ people and places (despite the air of mysticism and magical realism that hangs about all his books). At the same time he is a true craftsman, in that he lets himself be led by where his craft wants to take him within his basic structure – he spoke again and again of ‘not knowing’ about key aspects of the book while he was writing them – for example, why Skellig was there, who he really is, and most crucially, how the story was going to end.

How wonderful it must be, to be able to conceive and write of such fully-formed characters, whose lives become so real that they can take you with them literally as you write, and that you trust them enough to allow them to take you there. And how wonderful to be able to take them where they want to go with such control over language. If I could be anyone in the world right now I think I’d be David Almond.

If you haven’t already, read Skellig, then listen to David Almond speak. I hope you will be as captivated as I was.