Monday, November 18, 2013

The Boy Who Swam with Piranhas by David Almond

In The Boy Who Swam with Piranhas, David Almond gently reminds us that a human being is an astonishing thing, and that we are part of "the wonderful and terrifying vastness of the universe." This is why Almond, who also wrote Skellig, is one of my very favourite authors.

His language is playful -- disgracious; the pea's knees; we must bite our time; the land of Rackanruwin -- and his characters speak the dialect of northern England -- how do; dun't know; wotch yer step; good for nowt.

Young Stanley is orphaned and then his uncle Ernie goes a bit nuts and turns their house into a fish canning factory, where Stanley's pet goldfish are no longer safe. So Stanley runs off to work in a travelling carnival, where he meets lots of different kinds of people, including adults who treat him as an equal.

"I'm Seabrook. What's your name and what's your poison?"
"Poison?" says Stan.
"Forgive me. You're new, aren't you? Seabrook's way is we have a drink and a chinwag, then we get down to business. I can do you water, fizzy water, or black pop."

I also love Almond's metafictional storytelling style.

"But, reader, let's leave this trio for a moment in their caravan. Let's have something like our own dream. Let's rise through the caravan roof and over this strange field filled with sideshows and rides and peculiar practices and magical moments and fires and chops and spuds and scorpions and fish and tents. Let's rise into the moonlight so that the fires shrink to the size of fireflies; the spinning waltzer becomes like a distant comet. [...] And let's look down, almost as if we were the moon itself, and see if we can see what has happened to the other fragments of our story. [...] How can we do this? you may well ask. But it's easy, isn't it? All it takes is a few words put into a few sentences, and a bit of imagination. We could go anywhere with words and our imaginations. We could leave this story altogether, in fact, and find some other story in some other part of the world, and start telling that one. But no. Maybe later. It's best not to leave our story scattered into fragments, so let's find them and start to gather them up."

And all of the parts are indeed gathered up into a wise and witty tale about courage and forgiveness. "The hearts of these people, despite all their faults and failings, are good and true." Yes, yes and yes.

Illustrations by Oliver Jeffers hit just the right whimsical note. Grade 4 and up, or all ages if read aloud.

Almond recently won the Eleanor Farjeon award for outstanding contribution to the world of children's books and I say YES! to that too.

Readalikes: The Several Lives of Orphan Jack (Sarah Ellis); Small Change for Stuart (Lissa Evans); Mr. and Mrs. Bunny, Detectives Extraordinaire! (Polly Horvath); Flora and Ulysses (Kate DiCamillo).

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