Paper Boat, Paper Bird by David Almond, illustrated by Kirsti Beautyman (published by Hodder Children’s Books, Hachette)
Author interview with David Almond
David Almond is a creator of Promethean depth and reach. He has won the world’s most prestigious literary awards for young readers and his books are devoured by children, young adults and beyond. His novels, with their otherworldly elements, undercurrents of darkness and motifs of wings, flight and freedom, imprint themselves into our consciousness.
I will always remember the experience of reading David’s ground-breaking, novel Skellig when it was published in 1997and the curiosity, wonder and care it transfused, which rippled into his later books. Then came the visceral, confronting Kit’s Wilderness in 1999 and Heaven Eyes and Secret Heart, followed by the wildly audacious The Fire-Eaters in 2003.
Other highlights are the brooding, mystical Golem-influenced Clay; Click, a mesmeric collaboration by a who’s-who of writing luminaries including David himself, Ruth Ozeki, Margot Lanagan, Linda Sue Park and Roddy Doyle; My Dad’s a Birdman, a children’s book illustrated by Polly Dunbar; Jackdaw Summer, with echoes of Skellig; and the longed-for prequel to Skellig, My Name is Mina, before the consummate, A Song for Ella Grey in 2014.
These books have been interspersed with David’s searing graphic novel fusions The Savage and Slog’s Dad, both illustrated by Dave McKean; children’s books by several illustrators; The Boy Who Swam with Piranhas, a collaboration with the inimitable Oliver Jeffers, and the brilliant The Dam illustrated by Australian-based Levi Pinfold.
Many of these books are contemporary classics and all are somehow suffused with love. I have promoted those mentioned here through my role as a consultant for Australian independent bookshops and at conferences and other forums. I still own and treasure these books.
Paper Boat, Paper Bird by David Almond, illustrated by Kirsti Beautyman
‘The woman floats the boat towards Mina with her hands. Go on, take it, she says with her eyes. Mina takes it and rests it on her own palm. “Arigato,” she says. “A-ri-ga-to.” Float it, says the woman with her eyes. Mina floats it through the tiny empty spaces around her body and the spaces open and the waters rise.’ (Paper Boat, Paper Bird by David Almond)
Paper Boat, Paper Bird is one of David Almond’s books for younger readers. As always, it is original and distinctive, with elements of literary surrealism or magic realism. The characters bring great warmth to the tale.
Thank you for speaking with Joy in Books at PaperbarkWords, David.
THANKS SO MUCH, JOY. IT’S AN HONOUR.
What are some preoccupations, symbols or images that recur throughout your body of work and appear in your new children’s book, Paper Boat, Paper Bird?
Yes, some preoccupations, symbols, images recur and recur whatever I’m writing about, whatever the story is, whoever the characters are, wherever the setting is. I don’t plan them. I don’t force them. I start to write and keep on writing and there they are. I guess they’re the reasons I do write and keep on writing. Something inside wants to be written. So I find myself writing about the death of a parent, death of a sibling, whether the dead in some ways live on, the desire for flight, love of birds, celebration of dance and song, love of our real miraculous world, disgust at war and warmongers, the inclusion of religion/spirituality. There’s always a child at the heart of the story, a child who is both simple and profound, who is able to see and imagine what many adults cannot. There’s an exploration of the nature of creativity. Wonder at the simple weirdness of our world and of ourselves. And exploration of the power of precise language, of precise craft/art. A belief that storytelling and all art can bring about changes in the world.
We meet Mina from Skellig and My Name is Mina again in Paper Boat, Paper Bird. What a gift to spend more time with her. What insight do you give us about her here?
Mina never goes away, not that I’d ever want her to. I never expected her to appear in Skellig. When she says to Michael, ‘Are you the new boy here?’ I felt that she was asking the question of me as well. When I wrote My Name is Mina ten years after Skellig, it was as if she’d been waiting for the opportunity to speak. It was as if she spoke through me. It was wonderful to write about her again and to discover more about her, to give her space to be creative with words in a very mina-ish way. I felt that Japan was such an appropriate place for her. It feels like a very Mina-ish land! Last time I went to Japan, I spent an hour with the Empress Michiko in her palace at the heart of Tokyo. She talked of her love for Mina, and said that she often felt like Mina herself. How strange that this girl, who came unbidden to the story of Skellig, has such an effect on so many people. Everywhere in the world I go, someone tells me, ‘I feel like Mina,’ whether they’re an empress, a young woman in Russia, a lad or a lass from Tyneside.
How is Paper Boat, Paper Bird a love story to Japan?
Perhaps it is. I’ve loved my visits there. I’ve been three times. I love the commotion, the silence that seems to sit deep within everything, the beauty, the people. Pachinko parlours and shrines that exist side by side. The sense that there is another world just beside, just above, just below, this world. I was continually surprised, astonished, entranced. I loved Kinkakuji, the Temple of the Golden Pavilion, that Mina and her mother visit in the tale. The play of Skellig has been performed several times in Japan, which pleases me greatly! When I watched Noh Theatre in Kyoto I saw deep connections between that form of drama and the tale of an exhausted winged being discovered in a shadowy garage in north eastern England. In the first production of the play in Tokyo, skellig was played by a dancer, which was wonderful and so appropriate, which brought focus to the strange physicality of Skellig himself – his merging of apparent ugliness and age with beauty and youth.
Where or how do you suspend time, and even place, in this story to create a sense of peace?
It’s always a matter of concentrating on the word, the rhythm, the sentence, the moment, the image, the movement, the stillness. It’s allowing them to exist in their own space and time. Be precise. Don’t overwork anything. Don’t try to fling in explanations or speculations. Allow silence to exist, allow space on the page to have its own place. Space in which the reader can imagine and recreate the story for themselves.
Paper Boat, Paper Bird is artfully illustrated by Kirsti Beautyman. Could you please choose one of her illustrations that captures the essence or atmosphere of your story and briefly explain why?
I love all of the illustrations. Kirsti’s work is wonderful and I’m proud of our collaboration. Perhaps I’d point in particular to the illustration on pages 26/27, where Mina is gazing down into the lake. ‘Mina looks down into the lake, and another Mina looks back up at her.’ Kirsti’s creation catches the strangeness of that moment, and the sense of wonder which is at the heart of the tale.
Sincere thanks to David for answering these questions with such thought and elegance.
No doubt many who read this blog, and children’s and YA literature, relish the opportunity to meet, or re-visit and think more deeply about Paper Boat, Paper Bird. We are privileged to share in David’s insights here.
All the very best with Paper Boat, Paper Bird, David. We avidly await your next book as well!
“Mina looks up as they walk and here’s the bird, swaying, falling, spinning, flying, a single tiny bird in space that goes on forever, as far as distant England, as far as the furthest star.” (Paper Boat, Paper Bird by David Almond)
Kirsti Beautyman’s website
Paper Boat, Paper Bird at Hachette
My review of The Dam by David Almond and Levi Pinfold at PaperbarkWords blog