Annoying David Blunkett and Chris Woodhead was a good day's work

PUBLISHED: 10:11 12 January 2009 | UPDATED: 15:47 07 September 2010

David Almond is an award-winning children s author who creates magic in an everyday world and believes in giving youngsters the freedom to explore their imagination, writes Amanda Blinkhorn David Almond is a deceptively simple writer whose books for ch

David Almond is an award-winning children's author who creates magic in an everyday world and believes in giving youngsters the freedom to explore their imagination, writes Amanda Blinkhorn

David Almond is a deceptively simple writer whose books for children manage to create magic without going to the time-consuming bother of inventing strange new worlds or creating misfit children with supernatural powers.

Almond's children live in ordinary houses with ordinary parents who react in predictably rational ways when presented with the unexpected.

They have scary problems of their own, but are still happy, like Michael in Skellig, to embrace a strange creature, half-dosser half-angel, in his garage.

Equally, in his latest book, Jackdaw Summer, when a bossy and persistent jackdaw leads our hero, Liam, to an abandoned baby his writer father doesn't simply grunt and get on with his manuscript, he does what any sane person would do and phones the police. And not surprisingly, Liam ends up on the evening news.

Not only does this approach enable us to cut to the chase without having to waste precious pages suspending belief or learning cod Latin, it makes the magic, when it does appear, so much more satisfying.

He has made a career from looking at things in a different way - and is always open to the alternative view. It was only after several relatively fruitless years of writing for adults that someone pointed out that his latest story was actually directed at younger people.

It was a moment of pure liberation, he remembers, which freed him up to write what became, Skellig.

Almond was a teacher when he wrote Skellig, which went on to win both the Whitbread Award and the Carnegie medal, and he used his winner's speech to rail against the testing and target culture which he felt was robbing children of their imaginations and turning teachers into automatons.

He managed, he says, to infuriate both David Blunkett, (then schools secretary) and Chris Woodhead (then chief inspector of schools) in one fell swoop by suggesting a mandatory "Eureka moment" in every school where children were allowed to simply sit, think and imagine for a few moments every day.

His latest book, Jackdaw Summer, leaps just as deftly from the mundane to the magical, but is set in the wildness of his native Northumberland, a landscape whose violent past is he believes, hugely neglected.

"The beginning of the book is set in my garden," he explains, adding that the image of his daughter, mucking about making mud pies got him started, but, like his work, this explanation is sneakily self-deprecating.

The book may have started in his garden, but it soon escaped into Northumberland, a place as unexplored and wild as Hampstead is trampled and tamed.

"I wanted to write about the history of Northumberland," he explains and, before we know it, he has drawn a line as straight and true as a Roman legion between the thoughtless cruelty of a small boy towards a frog, the border wars of Northumberland and the war in Iraq.

You only have to step out of your house to trip over a Roman battleground, explains Almond, who, being a man with a vivid imagination, finds that the gap of a few thousand years does little to diminish the drama on his doorstep.

"A lot of it was awful - killings and beheadings - just a huge amount of savagery," he says, adding that you don't have to travel far to find its modern equivalent.

Because of its wild and woolly nature Northumberland is still the perfect place to practise warfare.

"One of the first things you notice when you come here are the low-flying jets," he adds.

A gentle but natural rebel who thrives and celebrates the anarchy within people's heads, whether they are toddlers or professors, he still finds it surprising that he ever became a teacher.

"I didn't like school so I amaze myself by liking teachers," he says and still has slightly chilling tales of his days at the chalk face, pointing out that even these days it is still quite possible for teachers to bully the children in their care. Once that classroom door closes, he says, a bad teacher can still be a dictator of his own little world .

He recalls a school visit where a child, supposed to be busily "doing creative writing", was admonished for looking out of the window.

He still counts his lucky stars that he does not have his own personal bean counter looking over his shoulder when he is writing. Very few words would ever make it to the page, he says, if his own time spent gazing out of the window were ever limited in such a way.

He is an old-fashioned progressive at heart and listening to him recreate that unmistakable half mind-numbingly dull/half terrifying atmosphere of a classroom, it is easy to picture him as one of those engagingly slack teachers who it was so easy, and so rewarding to nudge off-piste with a well-placed and usually, personal, question.

Like the questioning and rebellious little boy he once was, he continues to be a thorn in the side of the dreary and the bossy. He still counts the day he managed to rile both David Blunkett and Chris Woodhead as one of his best day's work.

Jackdaw Summer by David Almond is published by Hodder Children's Books priced £10.99.


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