Wings and Faith with David Almond and Polly Dunbar

h1 March 5th, 2008 by jules

Let me hear it for David Almond, my friends. I really don’t think there’s anyone else quite like him writing for young adults today. He’s an extraordinary storyteller, creating stories memorable for their originality and striking in their beauty and mystery. His latest title is My Dad’s a Birdman (Candlewick; April ’08), an illustrated novel for younger readers with art work from one of my favorite illustrators, Polly Dunbar. And it “reads like a playful fairy tale,” wrote the UK’s Times Online. This is a relatively short, twenty-chapter illustrated novel for the 8+ age crowd, and it’s just such a lovely, lovely read. It’s tender and touching and celebrates life with an unabashed joy that made me instantly want to read it a second time, which I, indeed, did. I also found it to be rife with symbolism — but not in a Lit-101 kind of way that made me want to throw the book across the room. This is David Almond we’re talking about. He’s a master storyteller, and he handles the characters’ underlying grief with an impressive subtlety. But I’m getting ahead of myself . . .

This is the tale of Lizzie on her “ordinary spring morning in 12 Lark Lane” in a town in north England. Almond takes the very opening paragraph to list for us all the things Lizzie does to get herself and her father ready for the day. Yes, Lizzie is the caretaker here — she dresses herself and gets breakfast ready, then calls up to her father to wake up. And when he does, we see that he’s a little bit worse for wear. And that’s because, you discover later with just a word here and a small mention there, his wife — Lizzie’s mother — has died. She’s gone, and he’s checked out (mentally) a bit himself as well.

Immediately, he tells Lizzie about a dream he’s had and announces that his plans for the day are to fly. Yes, fly. The Great Human Bird Competition, announced by the town’s wandering registrar of sorts, the unforgettable Mr. Poop, has been declared, and Lizzie’s father is determined to win. Lizzie’s a bit skeptical at first, and sensible Auntie Doreen, who evidently has become the family’s matriarch after the death of Lizzie’s mother, will have none of it. Eventually, Lizzie comes ’round to the idea and helps Jackie, her father, construct his wings; helps him feather a nest in the kitchen; tolerates his sudden bug-eating; and even declares that she’ll join the competition as well. Auntie Doreen puts up a good fight, particularly with her arsenal of dumplings, which she is ever-baking and lobbing across the room at what she considers the more feather-brained of the family. Did I mention Almond’s subtle symbolism? Does it get any heavier and, well, down-to-earth than a big, fat, lumpy dumpling? Doreen, who believes people “should keep their feet on God’s good earth” and who is out to “clip {the} wings” (both literally and figuratively) of Lizzie and her father, insists that all they need is some “{g}ood home cooking . . . it’s what that big daft man needs, an’ all. Things is going to rack and ruin here.” Here are Lizzie and her dad, seeking flight, seeking air and reverie, and then there’s Auntie Doreen, who is flattered when someone else praises the solidity of her dumplings. I love it.

MY DAD’S A BIRDMAN. Text copyright © 2007 David Almond.
Illustrations copyright © 2007 Polly Dunbar. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Inc., Cambridge, MA.

And Lizzie and her father do, indeed, enter the Great Human Bird Competition. And like hell I’m going to spoil the beautiful ending for you. I wouldn’t want to take that spectacular moment away from you as a potential reader. Even more important anyway than whether or not they actually take flight is that “{e}ven if we end up getting fished out of the river, it won’t really matter, will it, Dad? . . . It might not work. But whatever happens, we’ll have done it together . . . That’s what really matters.”

This short novel is many wonderful things, but at its core this is a story about celebrating life, about overcoming grief. It’s a tale of hope (“I’ve got me wings and me faith,” Lizzie’s dad tells Mr. Poop, as he’s questioning their ability to even survive the competition). Also at its core is a great sadness — a grieving husband and daughter, trying their best to cope after a great loss. And a father so desperate to build himself up in his daughter’s eyes (“Birds is the best in the world at looking after their little’uns, you know,” he tells Lizzie. “They bring them up good and strong. They protect them from all dangers”). Lizzie hardly needs the encouragement and constantly declares her love, singing the praises of his cleverness, yet he’s too far gone to see it. Imagining himself in flight at one point, her father sees in his mind’s eye “Lizzie down there, on the riverbank, looking up at him and waving, and yelling out to anyone who’d listen, ‘That’s my dad up there! That’s Jackie Crow! My dad’s a birdman! He’s the greatest birdman and the greatest dad there’s ever been!'”. But later she tells him, to her father’s disbelief, “{b}ut Dad . . . I don’t need you to be a birdman. I just need you to be my dad.”

But does Almond beat this into our heads? This talk of death, grieving, trying to get on daily in the wake of unimaginable loss, the ever-present need to find some shred of hope? No. He whispers it softly here and whispers it even more softly over there as we’re reading, trusting implicitly that young readers can read between the lines. Ah, it’s nice to see such respect for child audiences. Seriously, if you blink, you might miss the short phrase telling us Lizzie’s mother has died, but children won’t miss it. And they’ll get it. They’ll totally get the actions of Lizzie and her father — and all the unspoken motivations behind them.

“Nothing fancy for the Crows. No machines or engines or slings or elastic bands. Wings and faith and hope and . . . dare I say it? . . . love!” says her father as they head out for flight (pictured above). Ah, loveliness. And if they fall (which again, I won’t spoil for you)? Well, does it matter really if you fall when you have your father who loves you at your side and you have exhilirating fun in the process?

Dunbar’s illustrations . . . . well, when has she never delighted us with her circus-esque, vivacious, and larger-than-life characters? And when she rises to Almond’s challenge of bringing to life with her expressive collage illustrations the wonderfully bizarre participants in the Great Human Bird Competition — Bouncing Bess from Baffin Bay, Elastic Eddie from Elsmere Port, Danny the Dart from Donegal — it’s perfection. I can’t imagine a more fitting illustrator having been chosen for this tale.

Do yourself a favor and read this one. And then recommend it to someone you know who needs reminding — with a superb and refreshing restraint — that love and imagination can overcome grief. Highly, highly recommended. Publication date is April ’08, I believe.

NOTE: I read an uncorrected advance proof of this book; quoted excerpts are subject to change.

11 comments to “Wings and Faith with David Almond and Polly Dunbar”

  1. I’ve been seeing that book in ads, and every time I do, I am extremely intrigued by that cover that reminds me so much of Quentin Blake. It’s partly the bird thing, because, goodness knows, Blake loves birds, but it’s also something in those skinny people and the angular lines.

  2. Oooh, I love David Almond! So glad to hear he has a new one coming out..

  3. Doesn’t that cover make you drool???

  4. Adrienne, not only does the art work smack of Blake a bit, but the story, it can be argued, has Dahl-ian elements to it.

    Libby, I love his books, too (obviously)!

    Liz, yes! I’m so glad I got permission to feature a spread from it in this post. I love Dunbar’s work.

  5. I have the ARC of this, but haven’t cracked it open yet. I love Polly Dunbar, who also illustrated Here’s A Little Poem, which is the real appeal of the book to me thus far, but you’ve convinced me that I must read it for the writing as well.

  6. Let me know what you think, Kelly. As I was just telling Adrienne (off-blog), I read this twice and had a much different experience the second time — for different reasons (which we can discuss later, if you read it and wanna talk).

    I LOVE Dunbar’s work, and I love her illustrations in that Yolen / Fusek Peters anthology. That thing is FLAWLESS. I think I read it once a day with my girls and have bought a bajillion copies for baby shower gifts.

  7. I just teared up over the review, I dunno how I’m gonna get through the book. But you’ve made me determined to try.

  8. Eisha, it’s a hard book to describe, but I’m glad I perhaps did a passable job here. What’s hard to convey is how very, VERY anti-overt all these messages are. I mean, yeah, you come away with the sense of hope and faith and love conquering sadness, but Almond never says it too, too loudly — on the surface, that is. He doesn’t have to say it at all, because the narrative takes care of that. But that’s what I love about it the most. That Times Online reviewer nailed it with that “fairy tale” comment. It almost reads like that.

  9. And, really, how great is the name “Mr. Poop”?

    The lobbing-of-dumplings across the room at people (Auntie Doreen) got me every time, too. Working herself into a tizzy over it all. Very funny stuff.

  10. Its funny I am reading this review, today I was drawn to the book in the stockroom. Something about it said pick me up and check me out, but I didn’t have enough time to exam the reasons. Though now I will. Thanks

  11. […] of Skellig. And his latest book, My Dad’s a Birdman (Candlewick; April 2008; reviewed here at 7-Imp), shows a bit of a departure for him — it’s an illustrated novel, brought to […]

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