healing power of love and imagination in overcoming the wounds of ignorance and prejudice. These stories merge memory and dream, the real and the imagined, in a collection of exquisite tenderness.
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The Middle of the World
She started with The Universe. Then she wrote The Galaxy, The Solar System, The Earth, Europe, England, Felling, Our House, The Kitchen, The White Chair With A Hundred Holes Like Stars, then her name, Margaret, and she paused.
"What's in the middle of me?" she asked.
"Your heart," said Mary.
She wrote My Heart.
"In the middle of that?"
"Your soul," said Catherine.
She wrote My Soul.
Mam reached down and lifted the front of Margaret's T-shirt and prodded her navel.
"That's where your middle is," she said. "That's where you were part of me."
Margaret drew a row of stick figures, then drew concentric rings growing out from each of them.
"Where's the real middle of the world?" she said.
"They used to think the Mediterranean," said Catherine. "Medi means middle. Terra means world. The sea at the middle of the world."
Margaret drew a blue sea with a green earth around it.
"There was another sea at the edges," said Catherine. "It was filled with monsters and it went right to the end of the world. If you got that far, you just fell off."
Margaret drew this sea. She put fangs and fins for monsters.
"There's no end, really, is there?" she said.
"No," said Catherine.
"And there's no middle, is there?"
Mam prodded Margaret's navel again.
"That's the middle of the world," she said.
Later that day we went to the grave. Colin rushed home from Reyrolle's on his Vespa for lunch. He bolted his food and rattled away again. We heard the scooter taking him on to Felling Bank and down towardthe square.
When it faded, Mary said,
"Should we go to the grave today?"
We hadn't been for months. We thought of the dead being in Heaven rather than being in the earth.
"Good idea," said Mam. "I'll make some bara brith for when you get home."
We were on the rocky path at the foot of the street when Dandy ran after us. He was a little black poodle that was never clipped and had horrible breath.
"Go home!" said Mary. "Dandy, go home!"
He yapped and growled and whined.
"Dandy, go home!"
No good. We just had to let him trot along beside us.
Margaret fiddled with her navel as she walked.
"When I started," she said, "what was I like?"
"What do you think you were like?" said Mary. "Like a gorilla? You were very very very little. You were that little, you couldn't even be seen. You were that little, nobody even knew you were blinkin there!"
"Daft dog," said Catherine, as Dandy ran madly through a clump of foxgloves and jumped at bees.
Soon we saw Auntie Jan and Auntie Mona ahead of us. They wore head scarves and carried shopping bags on their arms.
"Bet you can't tell which is which," said Mary.
"Even when they're talking to me I can't tell which is which," said Margaret.
The two aunts hurried into Ell Dene Crescent.
"Did they look the same when nobody knew they were there?" said Margaret.
"Of course they did!" said Mary. "Everybody looks the same when they can't be blinkin seen!"
The aunts waved and grinned and we all waved and Dandy yapped and then they hurried on again down into Ell Dene Crescent.
Mary picked daisies from the verges as we walked.
She said, "Dad once said that daisies were the best of all flowers. I think I remember that."
"You do," said Catherine. "You do remember. He called them day's eyes. Awake in the day and closed asleep at night."
Further on, Daft Peter lay in his greatcoat under a tree on The Drive.
"Not him!" said Catherine. "We'll never get away from him!"
We sat on a bench on Watermill Lane.
"How far is it?" said Margaret.
"You know how far," said Mary.
"Nowhere's far in Felling," said Catherine.
We watched Daft Peter.
"Move," said Catherine. "Go on. Move."
"Is Felling very small?" said Margaret.
Mary stamped her feet.
"Yes," said Catherine.
"Is it the smallest place in the world?"
"Is this Daft Question Day?" said Mary.
"Yes!" said Margaret.
"It's very small," said Catherine. "But there's smaller places."
"Places in the desert," said Mary. "Rings of huts in the jungle. Villages in the Himalayas."
"Yes," said Catherine. "And places like Hebburn or Seaton Sluice."
"Not Seaton Sluice," said Mary. "It's got that big beach. It's got to be bigger than Felling. And Hebburn's got that big new shopping center."
"Windy Nook, then," she said.
"That's not fair," said Mary. "Windy Nook's a part of somewhere else."
"Where, then? And make it somewhere we know."
"Bill Quay," said Mary.
No one said anything, even though we all knew Bill Quay was part of somewhere else as well.
"Thank goodness," said Catherine. "Bill Quay."
Daft Peter didn't move. In the end, we walked on. Dandy snarled as we drew nearer to the man.
"Dandy!" said Catherine.
Daft Peter smiled and rubbed his eyes.
"Here's me thought I was dreamin," he said. "And all the time I'm just wakin up."
He leaned against the tree.
"What would ye say if I knew how to turn swimmin fish into flyin fowl?" he said.
"Take no notice," whispered Catherine.
"Not much at all, I see," said Peter. "But what if I said I could take you girls and show you how to fly aroond this tree."
"I'd say you couldn't!" said Mary.
"Aha!" said Peter. "Just let me look inside this bag, then."
He dug into a brown bag. He took out a sandwich, something bright red and black hanging out of two dried-out slices of bread. He held it out to Mary as we approached.
"Take a bite of that," he said. "Go on, take a bite of that and see."
Dandy jumped up at him, barking and snarling. Daft Peter flailed and kicked and the sandwich flew into the road.
"Daft dog!" he shouted. "Look what ye've done to me dinna!"
We hurried past.
"What would ye say if I turned a daft dog into a nice meat pie?" yelled Peter.
"I'd say it would be very hairy and it would stink!" said Mary.
Reading Group Guide
This guide was prepared by Clifford Wohl, educational consultant.
1. In the introduction, David Almond tells us that the stories in Counting Stars are about his childhood. He is the narrator–the I. He reveals much about himself in bits and pieces throughout the book. What is your impression of him? How is he like you or your friends? How is he different? How is the world he grew up in the same as–or different from–your own?
2. Almond transports us to his hometown, Felling, with his stories. We learn about the town's history, its landmarks, parks, and people. Would you like to live in Felling? How is it like your hometown? How do you think Almond felt about his town as a child? How do you think he feels as an adult writing about it now?
3. Almond's portrait of Felling is very real, very particular. We can almost draw a map of it from the information he provides. But the description of Jonadab is different, and we are left to wonder if it is a real place or an imagined one. What do you think? Is Jonadab a fantasy? Are the children we meet there (John and Jane) wild, as they insist, or gentle, as Almond says? What do Jonadab and Felling share that makes them both feel like home?
4. Stoker's been after us for days. None of us knows why. Somebody must have been spinning stories about us, telling lies. There's four of us: Mickey, Tash, Coot, and me. We're sure we've done nothing wrong and said nothing wrong.
"But that's it," says Tash. "With him you don't need to. He believes what he wants to believe. That's why he's so wild" (p. 112).
Bullies show up in several stories in Counting Stars. Remember Adrian Carr in "Beatingthe Bounds," Stoker in "Behind the Billboards," Ken and Terry Hutchinson in "Chickens," and Miss Sloane in "Jack Law." Whether the bully is an older kid or a cruel headmistress at school, the question is always how to stop him or her. Talk about the bullies in the book. How are they handled? Are they ever tamed? Talk about bullies you have had to deal with or have seen tormenting other kids. What did you do about them?
5. Throughout the book, we see different sides of Almond's relationship with his father. How is it different from Almond's relationship with his mother? How is it different from his father's relationship with Colin and with Almond's sisters? Do you think the gender of a parent or caretaker affects how he or she relates to a child or teenager?
6. Faith–having it, questioning it, losing it, holding on to it–is one of the themes Almond deals with in many of these stories. Regarding religious faith, Almond tells us, "As I grew older, of course, and once I'd left St. John's myself, I soon saw through this subterfuge: the attempts of an old Irish priest to stifle the liberating effects that education might have on our minds, to keep us in a state of obeisance and fright before his worn-out religion" (p. 15). How did Almond's attitude toward religion change as he got older? What problems did he have with his religion? How do you look upon religion? What role does it play in your life? Have your views changed as you've gotten older?
7. In "Jack Law," Carmel Bright tells Almond about Jack Law and how the children at school failed to intervene when Jack was so severely–and unfairly–punished by the headmistress.
"Would it happen now? Would no one make a move and run out there and bring him in, no matter what the teachers said or did? Would his brothers not raise their fists and fight to get him back?. . . Maybe not, but way back then the things we saw were all mixed up with the things we were told to believe. The things we knew were wrong were all mixed up with the things we were told were right" (p. 185). Have you ever been in a situation where you questioned the rightness of what an authority told you? Are we encouraged to question the correctness of our parents, our teachers, our government? Are such challenges to authority ever successful?
8. Death and loss are young Almond's constant companions. Although his sister Barbara and his father both die while Almond is fairly young, they remain important people in his life. How are their memories kept alive? Do you think about the people you've known who have died? What roles do your memories of them play in your life?
9. In "Jack Law," Carmen Bright says, "Stories change in the telling, memory makes up as much as it knows" (p. 178). In "The Kitchen," Almond writes, "We listen to the truth, the memories, the bits made up. . . . We listen to the stories, that for an impossible afternoon hold back the coming dark" (p. 176).
Where stories come from and their importance in our lives are important themes of Counting Stars. As a writer, as a reader, and as a listener, where do you think stories originate? How much of the fiction you read–or write, if you are a writer–do you think is autobiographical? In listening to your own family's stories, how much do you believe is true and how much made up or altered by faulty memory or wishful thinking?
10. Each of the stories in this collection has a distinct mood that the author conveys to us almost from the first line. Take a careful look at the story "My Mother's Photographs" to get a sense of Almond's writing style. How does he convey a feeling of tenderness while also giving us a good deal of background information? Notice his use of metaphor for extending the meaning of the information given. Examine the details he provides. Discuss why he is so specific with names of people and places. Then look at other stories and see whether you recognize some of the same techniques, as well as others.
11. Can you find ideas, themes, characters, plotlines, and settings in any of these stories that also appear in Almond's novels (Skellig, Kit's Wilderness, Heaven Eyes, and Secret Heart)? How did he develop them in the novels? What do you like more or less about a collection of short stories as compared to a novel? What are the strengths and weaknesses of the short story as a form of fiction?
12. Which is your favorite story in this collection? Why?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
As usual, David Almond makes me feel nostalgic for a time and place I never lived in, a Catholic family in a small working class UK town sometime in the 50's, maybe 60s.This is a set of short stories, each of which stands alone, but together they paint a picture of a family as the children experience death and loss of faith, but also wonder and a great deal of love.While I enjoyed reading the collection, I am not sure which readers I will recommend it to.