Book Review, Children's Fiction, Illustrator, Middle Grade Fiction

BOOK REVIEW: The Boy who Swam with Piranhas by David Almond & illustrated by Oliver Jeffers

As a fan of both writer David Almond and illustrator Oliver Jeffers, I couldn’t turn down the opportunity to review this title. The first thing I would say is that it is a very beautifully produced book with a stunning cover by Jeffers, featuring his trademark mixed media style of illustration and unique font. This artwork continues on the inside in the form of black and white images with Jeffers’ font in chapter headings and occasional passages of text. The illustrations are flawless and the story almost lives up to them.

It tells the tale (or fishtail!) of orphan, Stanley Potts, who lives with his aunt and uncle. When Uncle Ernie gets made redundant he sets up a fish-canning factory in their home. This totally takes over the whole house and soon Ernie ropes his nephew and wife in to help with the labour. Getting a rare day off for this birthday, Stanley visits a fairground, and feels so sorry for the goldfish in the Hook-A-Duck stall that he offers to do manual work at the stall in exchange for the fish.

He takes his beloved fish home, but while Stanley is asleep his uncle turns them into canned fish, prompting the boy to run away with the Hook-A-Duck man and his daughter. At another fairground he meets Pancho Pirelli whose circus act is swimming jeffers_almond_panchostanwith piranhas. Like the Hook-A-Duck man, Pancho senses something special in Stanley and trains him up to be ‘The Boy who Swam with Piranhas’.

As you would expect from David Almond, the writing is sublime, nicely paced and full of neat touches like when the narrator occasionally addresses the reader. Though it is zany, I expected more humour. It explores themes of destiny, friendship and the possibilities of stories. I liked the fact that Stanley is a quiet, sensitive hero who faces his fears and shows true bravery and forgiveness at the end of the book.

The language is very accessible and would appeal to readers as young as seven or eight. The only issue I had was with Uncle Ernie’s crazed act of killing Stanley’s pet goldfish. To me, it seemed out of character. Ernie is no villain, and indeed seems to be a kind-hearted uncle. His moment of madness is later explained as the single-minded blindness of an entrepreneur, but I didn’t buy it. It seemed like a contrivance to get Stanley to run away from home and have an adventure.

But apart from that, I really enjoyed the book and the message that ‘the little troubled runts are often the ones that turn out to be best of all.

 

Four out of Five Storgy Typewriters

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The Boy Who Swam With Piranhas is published by Walker Books and is available here.

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David Almond

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David Almond was born in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1951 and grew up in the small mining town of Felling.

He was educated at the University of East Anglia and Newcastle Polytechnic. After graduating he worked as a teacher for five years before moving to a remote artists’ commune in Norfolk to concentrate on his writing. He then returned to Newcastle, where he worked as a part-time Special Needs teacher and edited the literary fiction journal Panurge. He is an experienced creative writing teacher and has worked for the Arvon Foundation and for schools, colleges and universities and is in demand as a speaker at festivals and conferences around the world.

His first book, Sleepless Nights, a collection of short stories for adults, was published in 1985 and was followed in 1997 by a second volume, A Kind of Heaven. His first children’s novel, Skellig, the story of a strange, part-human ‘creature’ who transforms the lives of two young children forever, was published to immediate acclaim in 1998. The book won both the Carnegie Medal (1998) and the Whitbread Children’s Book Award (1998). In 2007, it was shortlisted for the Carnegie of Carnegies. He was given an Arts Council Writers’ Award to work on Kit’s Wilderness (1999), a teenage novel inspired by the author’s childhood memories of disused mines. It was awarded a Nestlé Smarties Book Prize (Silver Award) and was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal (2000) and for the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize.

Counting Stars (2000) is a collection of children’s stories, again inspired by the author’s memories of his own childhood and family, and a selection of stories from this volume was published separately in March 2002 under the title Where Your Wings Were, as one of five World Book Day publications. A play, Wild Girl, Wild Boy, was published in March 2002, and a stage version of Skellig was published in April 2002 to coincide with the National Theatre’s production of the play. The Fire-Eaters (2003) centres on the fortunes of Bobby Burns and his encounters with a fire-eating devil called McNulty. It was awarded the Gold Medal in the Age 9-11 category at the 2003 Nestlé Smarties awards and won the 2003 Whitbread Children’s Book Award. It also won the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award (USA). Clay (2005) was shortlisted for the 2006 Costa Children’s Book Award and the 2006 Carnegie Medal.

David Almond’s work is translated into more than 20 languages. He lives in Northumberland and was the recipient of the Hans Christian Andersen Award in 2010. His children’s novel My Name is Mina (2010), a prequel to Skellig, was nominated for a 2012 Carnegie Medal. In 2011 his first adult novel was published – The True Tale of the Monster Billy Dean. This was followed by The Boy Who Swam with Piranhas (2012) a children’s book illustrated by Oliver Jeffers, Mouse Bird Snake Wolf (2013) with illustrator Dave McKean, A Song for Ella Grey (2014) and The Tightrope Walker (2014), a novel for young adults, and The Colour of the Sun (2018).

Oliver Jeffers

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Oliver Jeffers graduated from The University of Ulster in 2001 with First Class honours. His outstanding talent has been recognised by several high-profile awards, including the Nestlé Children’s Book Prize Gold Award. ‘Lost and Found’ animation was broadcast on Channel 4. Oliver lives and works in Brookyln, New York.

Reviewed by Kieran Fanning

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