Blog 5

Skellig by David Almond – Review

‘I found him in a garage on a sunday afternoon.’

Stars

A Good Read

David Almond’s story of Skellig tells the tale of Michael and his family, as they go through the trauma of having a sick baby. But in reality that is the side story of Michael’s search for self and his deep connection with the his friend Mina, Skellig and his baby sister.

The opening line at the start of this blog came up in a recent conference I attended. It’s such a captivating first line and raises so many questions in an instant, that I felt compelled to re-read Skellig. I hadn’t read it since I did my teacher training. At the time, I didn’t like it and I couldn’t remember why. I have a vague memory of Sky TV making the book into a programme but I didn’t see it, perhaps put off by my misreading of the text in the 1990s. So I read it this time with fresh eyes. Someone had said in passing that Almond was a Marmite author. Well, if that’s the case, I love Marmite. I was gripped from the start.

There is an emotional tug to this book that really made me feel everything Michael was experiencing. His relationship with his baby sister is explored through the link of their shared hearts. He can feel her being alive in his heart both physically and metaphorically. He is sensitive and at the same time a boy who plays football and is part of the rough and tumble at school. He seems to be able to adapt to this change with ease. I admire Almond for writing a book that allows boys to cry and show emotion. There is not enough of that in writing for young boys.

His next door neighbour, the unconventional Mina, is home schooled, clever and loves nature. Mina is a wonderful girl, not least because she climbs trees and draws and knows something of William Blake. She is the gentle voice of reason and understands Michael instinctively.  She feels his sense of fear and shares his excitement too. Her story is one of loss and, although we are given some insight into why she is a curious young girl who is educated at home, it’s never fully explored but there is another book by Almond, My Name is Mina, that perhaps would tell more of her story.

So who or what is Skellig? He has wings. He’s dusty and turning to stone. He eats owl pellets and Chinese food. He drinks brown ale. Initially he seems to be a tramp, a vagrant who has been living in the crumbling garage next to Michael’s home. As Michael experiences the trauma of his sister being taken back into hospital and perhaps dying, he tries to keep this strange creature alive. Mina helps him give new life to Skellig and they are both drawn to him to try to save him but also he gives them hope and a sense of wonder. He is an enigmatic figure at the centre of the story and his delicacy and vulnerability echo that of Michael’s baby sister.

This is a magical novel and it speaks to the way we try to rationalise some of the things we experience in life. It was so bare in terms of narrative and description but it simply didn’t need it. The raw emotion of the story reaches out to the reader punching through to our own hearts. I must admit to shedding a quiet tear at the end but perhaps not for the reasons you might think. The story gives us what we want but perhaps not in the way we expect. That’s as much as I can say without giving the story away!

Who should read this?

Everyone, Marmite or otherwise! David Almond is a skilled writer and, if like me, you are considering writing for middle grade or even young adults, there is a beauty to the clear and unambiguous style. I read this in two days; I couldn’t put it down. For young people, it’s requires some emotional intelligence so I would recommend it for age 11 and above. It would make a wonderful class reader for Year 7 or Year 8.

Planning

Learning the Craft

I love writing.

I will make up all sorts of silly stories, poems, notes, sentences, words. However, I am not confident in what I do. Like every writer, I wonder if anyone will want to read my stories. After all, I’ve delayed and delayed writing anything that could be considered fully formed. So, in order to understand the writing process, I’m trying to get to as many workshops and meetings with other writers as I can.

Writing like all crafts has some groups that you can access and some you can’t. However, I have so far taken advantage of the Literature Works, How to get Published Conference, which was brilliant and which has really moved me forward. I’ve followed every single person I can find on Twitter to see what they are reading and absorb their advice. I joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators so I can attend some of their courses and read their magazines. I’ve read two other writing magazines and kept some useful articles and, today, I went to a course run by Imagine Creative Writing in Tiverton.

I know that when I taught creative writing with GCSE students, I’d talk about having some kind of structure to the writing. How was it going to end? Were you going to start ‘In Media Res’? Could you create a story with only one character? How would you get me interested in the first 3 lines? When it came to A-level creative writing, we always talked about suspense and how you could tease your reader. We’d look at more complex story structures than beginning, middle, and end. We’d talk about motifs and themes. So I know a tiny little bit about planning. Do I do it myself? Ummm … nope! I seem to have entire novels fully formed in my head. My latest story of family loss and rebuilding has been lurking around in my head for a while but was influenced by a homemade sign I saw on a lamppost in Shaldon: “Lost: Cat. Ran away from Cattery. Could be  trying to get back to Dawlish.” Now, my story has nothing to do with cats (well not this one anyway) but the poster made me think about how young people cope with loss. Then I had a family, I had a setting, and a ‘voice’. So after that I sat down to write!

Today, after a wonderful 2 hours with the fantastic Jenny Kane, I realised that I probably (having written over 5000 words) ought to have a little think about timelines and how my story hangs together. In the class, we did two exercises which really made me think about story construction and I realise, I am driven by titles and names but I will come back to that in another blog! The first exercise, involved using a random story generator. What a fantastic resource this is for just getting some ideas. So what did we end up with:

  • Main Character
    Man in his late 40s who can be quite eccentric
  • 2nd Character
    A young man in his late teens who can be quite imaginative
  • Setting
    The story begins in an alleyway
  • Situation
    A 30 year old murder case is resurrected
  • Theme
    A story about vengeance
  • Character Action
    A character has to do some quick thinking to keep ahead

Now, I was off … as always, disappearing into my Philip Marlowe type world of police detectives and dead bodies. I did smile though, as the work I had done at my previous workshop on opening lines had an immediate impact. Here is my opening line:

“Boney fingers were visible underneath the black bin bags that lined the alley.”

What fun!

Next exercise was to create a timeline for a story outline which we created from a set of prompts. This was quite a challenge but it also showed me how I really needed to think about this for my own story. I would never have thought to do this had I not been shown. Now it might be obvious to everyone else but I think with longer writing, as I used to say to my students, if you don’t know where you’re going, how do you know you are there! The next step for me, is to create the timeline for my own tale of loss, which has quite a complex narrative structure … But I know that 11 and 12 Year olds love stories that move through different times and places. Just look at Harry Potter.

Thank you again to Jenny and to the other lovely students, who created some amazing writing and were so supportive. I am not going to forget the dark gothic tale of dogs and cats that one lady came up with for some time!

In the Beginning

Well … here it is the start of my writing adventure!

So far, two books started and one nearly finished. Hundreds of ideas logged and noted down. When I taught and we would embark on some creative writing, I used all sorts of tools to encourage students to ‘get started’: photos, paintings (particularly Bruegel, some of those pictures were superb for creating a character), music, posters, cartoons. But even with all that stimulation, I’d still hear, ‘I don’t know what to write.’

So where do my ideas come from. I think some of them are stimulated by a title, or a sound or a memory. I worked with teenagers and they are a source of so much inspiration. They are both full of arrogance and self doubt and desperate to be seen as adults. So to all of them that I looked after over 25 years, you have all influenced my writing and whether they are ever published or not, I guess I should say thank you. Some of my ideas though are complete curve balls influenced by some nutty moment that I experience whilst out shopping or doing something that seems completely ordinary. For instance, I was sitting outside my son’s swimming lesson and in the corridor was a mum with her daughter. The daughter was throwing the most unbelievable tantrum and threw a wooden hairbrush down the corridor, narrowly missing a toddler on the floor. This has spawned an idea for a comedy horror book for 5 – 8 year olds! I wonder if that little girl will recognise herself in it.

I think at the moment, I have notes on about 10 different ideas. Some of them will come to nothing. Others … well who knows. When it comes down to it, the only way to write is to sit down and do it. There used to be a poster near the reception of the Brotherton Library at Leeds University that said something along those lines. Can’t remember the actual quote or the person who said it now (it was 25 years or so ago!) so if anyone can enlighten me that would be good. It was an excellent quote! Anyway, I digress, what I am trying to say is that I love writing. Whether it’s this blog or writing PRs for my work, or creating interesting content for websites, I can’t stop writing. So with an over active imagination and wanting to use time wisely rather than wasting it away, I might as well produce some stories.

Now then … back to the beach and my leading lady, Sophie. Let’s see what she does today.