Rarely, it seems, does David Almond miss an opportunity to sit or stand in front of a group of children clutching a book. As a widely feted, consistently successful and prolific author, you wonder how he finds the time.
But he will invariably have those children in the palm of his hand. He will be sharply focused on them and they on him. Bored by books in an age of digital revolution? Not on this evidence, captured in many photos in The Journal’s archive.
David is a compelling storyteller in the flesh and on the printed page but success was a long time coming. He was 47 when his breakthrough novel, Skellig, was published, arriving 15 years ago in tandem with his daughter, Freya, in what must have been a momentous year.
Since then he has won a clutch of major prizes including the Carnegie Medal, for Skellig, two Whitbread Awards, a Smarties Prize and, in 2010, the Hans Christian Andersen Award, which is given every two years in recognition of a living author’s lasting contribution.
None of this lessened his delight at the honour bestowed on him last night at Penguin headquarters in London where he told his audience: “I’m really moved by this award.
“It comes from the heart of the children’s book world, a place of great creativity, optimism and endeavour, a world in which people genuinely believe that books and all forms of art can and do change people’s lives. I am proud to be part of it.”
There is an emphatic nature to these words. More than a polite acceptance speech, there’s a tone - not even an underlying one - of defiance. It sounds a bit like fighting talk and it clearly comes from the heart.
Speaking ahead of the prize-giving, David said his perception of the Eleanor Farjeon Award was that it was for more than just a string of good books. “It’s for commitment and services to children’s literature. It is for your whole body of work but also for the external work you do as well, educational stuff like being artistic director of the Bath Festival of Children’s Literature.”
This was a duty he performed this year and will do so again in 2014. It followed his appointment as professor of creative writing at Bath Spa University. “They approached me about 18 months ago and said they were setting up this professorship and did I want to apply? I said yes, that sounds good, so I get to teach and give talks a couple of times a term.
“They also suggested it would be good to be guest artistic director of the children’s literature festival. It was fantastic. I really loved it.
“There’s a great educational strand. We had an evening of translated literature and I brought together the education and literature students. A lot of children were involved in programming and interviewing and running panels.”
Eleanor Farjeon (1881-1965) was a poet best known for the hymn Morning Has Broken, which Cat Stevens turned into a hit pop song. She also won the Hans Christian Andersen Award and Carnegie Medal.
The award in her memory was set up 47 years ago and is voted for by members of the Children’s Book Circle, a not-for-profit organisation which celebrates the importance of children’s literature.
The illustrator Quentin Blake won it in 2012 and in 2010 it went to Seven Stories, the Newcastle-based national centre for children’s books, when David Almond was also shortlisted.
Presenting the prize, Children’s Book Circle co-chair Rachel Kellahar said she was delighted it was going to a worthy winner. “As well as being a brilliant and well-loved author, David is a passionate advocate of the value of writing for children and its power to enrich our society.”
Ahead of the ceremony, David said of his classroom endeavours: “When you work in the children’s book world you see so many things in the papers - in politics - to do with reading and children and education... lots of lies and half-truths and misunderstandings. It almost feels like part of the job to counter these.”
He went on: “It almost seems like there’s a determination to say things are terrible in education, a cultural pessimism among people who’ve got power and should know better. There’s this thing when politics and education get mixed up: politicians always want to seem tough and when you mention the value of play and creativity, they see it as soft and wimpish.
“But I think there’s a misunderstanding about what it means to be creative. I think creativity is at the heart of all kinds of learning.
“Children learn to read and write because they’re naturally creative. It’s not just some romantic notion but a lot of politicians seem to view children just as economic units, testing them at a younger and younger age.
“There’s a great school in Newcastle where the teachers are doing extraordinary work. People might normally think these kids don’t have a chance but the teachers really believe in the children.
“When I go in to see them I ask, ‘What are you reading?’ These kids are always reading. When I say to people that I’m a children’s writer, some of them say, ‘But children don’t read any more because they’re all on Playstation or Facebook’. I can see why people think like that but it’s an illusion that all the other things are gone.
“I think publishers went through a bit of a flap a few years ago thinking everything would be electronic but I’m optimistic now about the future of books and reading. That’s one of the messages I keep spreading.
“I was a teacher for a long time and I know there are ways to teach that stop children learning and ways that can inspire. When I write I know I’m writing for an audience of readers.”
David talks to children all over the country. He said: “I was at a really posh girls’ school in Norwich a few weeks ago and the responses I had were just the same as I get in a school in a deprived area of the North East.
“But one of the best things I can do in schools around here is just walk in and start talking. You imagine the kids must think: My God, he sounds just like us!
“When I was a kid (David grew up in Felling, Gateshead) you thought writers came from somewhere else and were special beings. Kids in this area can see I’m not like that at all.”
David, with “about 15 or 16” titles to his name and Skellig available in 40 languages, has three new books due out in the coming months.
The Tightrope Walkers, which he calls a “coming-of-age story” drawing on his memories of growing up on Tyneside, is his first to be targeted at adults. Eurydice Grey, aimed at teenagers, is a modern Tyneside tale with echoes of the classical myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, while Through the Sunlight to the Sea is a new book of short stories set in or around Felling.
It is likely every one of them, and the latter in particular, will plant a seed of inspiration in some young mind. Eleanor Farjeon surely would have approved.