Losing Yourself in the Wild and Lovely Worlds of David Almond

A Song for Ella GreyIf you know one thing about author David Almond, it’s probably that he has won a lot of awards. Like, a LOT, including the Carnegie, the Whitbread (twice), the Michael L. Printz, the Hans Christian Anderson, and many others.

What you may not know is that this former teacher usually sets his books in the place where he grew up and still lives: the northeast of England. Through his eyes, it’s a lonely wilderness of ruined castles, abandoned mines, deserted shipyards, and the seemingly endless dunes of empty beaches. Almond makes it mythic as he writes about young people in trouble, and the ways they manage to survive. He enchants them into life and, sometimes, into death.

Almond has said that writing is a kind of magic. In his hands, it so is. He’s basically the Dumbledore of YA authors. (Less beardy, but still…) Here are five of his most essential books.

Half a Creature from the Sea: A Life in Stories
It’s not just Almond’s writing that’s beautiful; this collection of stories is a gorgeous, Instagrammable thing, from its evocative cover to its lovely illustrations by Eleanor Taylor. Trust me: you want this all up on your Bookstagram. Each story is prefaced by Almond describing the real-life inspiration behind it. These mini-memoirs give us glimpses into his past (family trips to the beach, losing his sister and father at a young age, teaching a writing workshop in a women’s prison). For any budding writers out there, this is thrillingly inspiring. It lets us see how a writer can take an everyday memory and transform it into something magical. As one of the characters tells us, “everything can be turned into tales.” These stories show you how. And the title story might just be the most heartbreakingly beautiful piece of writing you’ll ever read. It’s incredibly moving, and the writing is literally going to make you cry. For real. Like, ugly cry. All the stories here are mesmerizing, but “Half A Creature From The Sea” will OWN your emotions.

Skellig
Almond’s legendary debut catapulted him into literary stardom, winning the Carnegie Medal and the Whitbread. Michael and his family have just moved into a new house. Michael’s baby sister is terribly sick, and when Michael, in search of any kind of escape, starts exploring the dusty, dangerous garage behind their house, he discovers what might just be a broken, dying angel—Skellig—lying helpless amid the dirt, dead flies, and cobwebs. Michael soon becomes friends with Mina, a girl from the neighborhood who’s always drawing in her notebook, always imagining and creating other worlds, and together they hatch a plan to save Skellig. Written in a deceptively simple style that becomes almost unbearably emotional, Skellig is a magical story about the power of belief, imagination, and hope in the face of despair. (Fun fact: the character is named after the Irish island Skellig Michael, which is where parts of Star Wars: The Force Awakens were filmed!)

My Name is Mina
If you liked Mina, good news: She has her own prequel! Set in the time leading up to the events in the original novel, My Name Is Mina is a collection of entries in her notebooks, a stream of consciousness that flows with Mina’s inquisitive imagination. It’s even formatted to look like it’s her handwriting. It does a brilliant job of putting you right inside her mind. Imagine if you could take a peek at Luna Lovegood’s diaries—this is like that. One of the most intriguing characters in Skellig becomes even more so here. Mina is such a rich character with such a creative, inquiring, restless mind, and this impressionistic novel reflects that, swooping and diving through key moments in her life. A fascinating companion piece to Skellig.

Counting Stars
Counting Stars is a kaleidoscopic collection of stories, all inspired by real events from his life, although unlike in Half A Creature From The Sea, we don’t find out what those events are. Almond explores the themes that run through all his books—dealing with the tumultuousness of growing up, facing death, knowing your possibilities but not knowing how to make them real—in his signature fable-like style. His writing is precise and lovely, which makes the emotions hit even harder. “Where Your Wings Were” is in some ways a spiritual prequel to Skellig, while “The Time Machine” hints at a future Almond novel called The Fire-Eaters. Each story here transforms sadness and loss into a beauty that hurts.

A Song For Ella Grey
Almond’s most recent novel is a contemporary retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, in which they fall in love, she dies, and he makes the dangerous journey to the Underworld to try to bring her back. Almond’s version is set in a grimy city beneath the grey skies of the North. Claire is in love with her best friend, Ella Grey, but Ella only has eyes for the mysterious Orpheus, who sings and plays the lyre, transporting whoever hears him into imagined worlds. Almond’s writing is full of longing and dark power. The story gets progressively bleaker, and by the time we arrive in the underworld, the pages themselves have turned black, and words are scrawled and slashed across the page in burning white. Almond’s books are often illustrated, or typographically adventurous, much like Illuminae (only with less spaceships). In the case of Ella Grey, it has the powerful effect of dragging us deep into the dreams and nightmares below the surface of our world.

Reading  Almond’s work is like plunging into a dark ocean at night: chilling, scary, and otherworldly, but full of sparkling starlight and strange creatures; a world that’s oddly inspiring and hopeful. His books are like fragments of a long dream you haven’t finished dreaming yet, and his worlds are wild and lovely places.

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