David Almond  | 'The North is a culturally rich place to be, it’s just how it is'

David Almond | 'The North is a culturally rich place to be, it’s just how it is'

Being seen as a Northern writer is both a blessing and a curse, according to David Almond, who was one of the judges of this year’s Hachette Children’s Novel Award.

He has been associated with the North-East ever since his breakout children’s novel Skellig, first published by Hodder Children’s Books 21 years ago, and says the North has always been a “great” place to be a writer, even though it is often misunderstood as a region.

“It’s on the fringes. It’s a frontier place and it is seen as somewhere with failing industry, but there is a North that is rich in history, and my artistic roots go back to the Lindisfarne Gospels. 

“For a long time I wanted no label at all, but as time has gone on I’ve accepted it,” he says. “I live in the North and my language is Northern. But there is a danger in labelling. I was interviewed recently by someone who wanted me to define myself as a Northern, Geordie writer and I said no.”

Almond was born in Newcastle in 1951 and says he always wanted to be a writer. He wrote for small presses and finished a novel that was never sold, and was working as a teacher when Skellig came to him “out of the blue”. That novel is about a boy who discovers “Skellig”, who may or may not be an angel, in his garage while dealing with the stress of a premature baby sibling. It was a huge success and changed the author’s life, winning the Carnegie and the Whitbread Children’s Book of the Year.

“Even six months before it was published, people were talking about it and about selling foreign rights. I was reluctant to finish the day job, but with Skellig everything changed.”

Since becoming a professional writer, Almond has written around 25 books and he writes for any and all ages, even though his work is generally published for younger audiences. It spans picture books, novels, plays and librettos, and most recently a graphic novel: Joe Quinn’s Poltergeist (Walker), illustrated by Dave McKean, was published in March.

Like most of his books, Joe Quinn’s Poltergeist is set in Tyneside, and the writer is “proud” of exposing the “richness, beauty and poetry” of Northern language, but stresses that his books appeal—and are sold—internationally. Skellig was a runner up for the Michael L Printz Award in the US and more recently The Dam (Walker), a picture book created with Levi Pinfold, won the 2019 Andersen Prize in Italy.

“It is still so exciting to be up for awards,” he says. “The Dam is a very Northern book, it is set in Northumberland and draws on Northern landscapes, language and music, but it is winning awards around the world.”

On the horizon

Almond’s upcoming children’s books include Annie Lobster, Girl From the Sea, illustrated by Beatrice Alemagna (Walker), and he has just finished a new novel called The New Kid, about a boy who may be a robot who arrives at a school on Tyneside.

His day job extends beyond writing, and an exhibition of his work is currently being displayed at Seven Stories: The National Centre for Children’s Books in Newcastle. He is also a professor of creative writing at Bath Spa University, and describes the Hachette Children’s Novel Award as a wonderful initiative. “Things like this, along with the work that New Writing North and Seven Stories do, emphasises the fact that the North is a culturally rich place to be,” he says. “In many ways that doesn’t need special celebration. It’s just how it is. It’s other people’s jobs to come and recognise it.”

This was written as part of The Bookseller's focus on publishing in the north of England; for more content from this focus, head here.