Skellig the heights;Briefing;People;Profile;David Almond

12th February 1999 at 00:00
David Almond's prize-winning novel was shaped by his teaching, writes Geraldine Brennan

Imagine the Masterchef judges saying sorry, they've been right off their food since that ulcer first flared up 30 years ago. But the great and the good know no shame on the rare occasions when they turn their attention to children's fiction.

Raymond Seitz, the former US ambassador to Britain, who chaired the Whitbread Book of the Year judging panel, was happy to announce that he hadn't read a children's book for many years (he thinks the last one was Treasure Island) before being confronted with the Whitbread Children's Book of the Year short list before Christmas.

"This has obviously been a mistake," he admitted as he announced the winner.

The pound;10,000 award went to David Almond, a special needs teacher in Newcastle, for Skellig, his first children's novel and one of the most talked-about British fiction titles of last year.

Skellig - a gripping story about Michael and the mysterious old dosser he finds in the garage at his family's tumbledown home - must have provided a kind awakening for Mr Seitz and his colleagues.

It's the sort of children's book that makes adults find excuses to read more of them, and will reassure those who think books written for children are cosy or trivial. It assumes intelligence and repays a close reading, unlike many recent children's books that are pitched at under-achieving boys who don't like reading.

Almond is now on the brink of the full-time writing career that he has wanted since leaving the University of East Anglia in 1975 with a degree in English and American literature.

He chose teaching to keep him afloat in the short term, and did a PGCE at Newcastle Polytechnic. "I thought it would be a good career for a writer because of the holidays," he said. "Of course I found it a great deal more interesting, more intellectually stimulating and much harder work than I had ever imagined, and I was far too knackered to write, even in the holidays."

He tried again after five years at Roman Road junior school in Gateshead. "I gave up, moved to a commune in Norfolk and lived for 18 months on pound;1,500 while I wrote some of my first short stories."

He moved back to the North-east with his partner, Sarah Jane, taught adult literacy classes and wrote materials for tutors. "That was one of the nicest jobs I've had, but it was only funded for a year."

A Northern Arts grant helped him do more writing, then in 1984 he took another full-time job at Southlands special school in North Tyneside, where he still works part-time, teaching children with moderate learning difficulties.

Meanwhile he was publishing stories in the literary journals that flourish in the North-East such as Iron, STAND and Panurge (which he later edited for six years) and writing an adult novel - "It took five years to write, went to 30 publishers and is now in a drawer where it will probably stay."

He had no plans to write for children until the story for Skellig came to him 18 months ago, as he was posting a batch of stories to a publisher. "I had been writing about my own childhood, and my style had changed a lot. It came out of the blue - I had to go home and start the book right away."

Skellig was published last summer shortly after his long-awaited first child, Freya, was born. "We had to hold up publication until we could put her name in the dedication."

He developed his love of books in the library in Felling, the small town on the banks of the Tyne where he grew up in a large extended family. "I owe the library a lot. I went there every night after it got too dark to play football."

The central child character in Skellig, Michael, is a well-rounded boy, who is good at football and writing stories. Michael's friend Mina, who is taught at home, has a wide-ranging intelligence that takes in the evolution of birds, tree-climbing and the vision of William Blake.

"While I was doing my PGCE, de-schooling theories were getting a lot of attention, and I found the ideas very exciting. When Mina appeared in the story I knew that was how she would work out."

Skellig is a kind of angel, but not one of the clean, white ones with gold-tipped wings that featured in Almond's Catholic childhood. This angel crunches bluebottles, scavenges for Chinese takeaway leftovers, swigs the dregs of brown ale and is crippled with arthritis.

Once the children get past his sinister and savage aspects, Skellig is able to help Michael through a bad patch while his parents are preoccupied with his ailing baby sister.

Skellig will shortly be published in the United States and David Almond's second novel, Kit's Wilderness, appears here in May. He's just finished a third, Heaven Eyes, to be published in December and is looking for a publisher for a collection of tales about his childhood, Stories from the Middle of the World.

The prize-winning novel would not be the same without the author's years in teaching, which have informed his view of how children learn in the broadest sense: "Enjoyment, confidence and high expectations are important, without too many different boxes for the different elements of learning."

Skellig is published by Hodder Signature and costs pound;4.99.

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