British author David Almond has spent his career writing books for children and young adults that explore the idea of wildness. Sometimes it is the wildness outside the main character, such as in the much-lauded 1998 novel Skellig. Sometimes it is the wilderness and the ancient myths called forth by landscape, as in the 2014 A Song for Ella Grey which retells Orpheus and Eurydice along the Bamburgh dunes. Sometimes it is the wildness within a character, as in the 2008 graphic novel, created with illustrator Dave McKean, The Savage. The idea of the wild and untamed is, Almond’s novels suggest, a part of all of us as well as all that surrounds us; understanding it can give us insight into our pain and accepting it can often help us heal what is broken.
Knowing about Almond’s focus on the wild is important for understanding his recent novella, Island (Hodder, 2017). Island was a £1 World Book Day selection in the UK, meaning that the book is sold for a single pound, until it is out of print, and school children in the UK can use their National Book Token to get it for free. World Book Day is connected with UNESCO; however, the British celebration is not a government initiative but a charity, and therefore reliant on the generous support of authors and publishers who are willing to participate (you can read more about it here: http://www.worldbookday.com/about/). The books this year, like the shortlisted books for the Carnegie Medal, were all written by white authors, something I (and others—see http://forreadingaddicts.co.uk/childrens-literature/world-book-day-2017-selections-criticism/13835 for a summary) complained about (in this particular moment, when there are so many great writers of colour in the UK, it seemed absurd that not one was asked to write for this celebration). I doubt it had anything to do with me, but I do want to point out that since the announcement of the selections and resulting criticism, the World Book Day website has highlighted several books with diverse authors and characters.
However, the lack of diversity in authors made me even keener to read Almond’s selection. In addition to admiring Almond’s dreamlike prose, and having had my own personal pilgrimage to the book’s setting of Lindisfarne (Northumbria’s Holy Island), I was curious to see how Almond would develop the character of Hassan, a boy from Syria. His initial appearance in the novella comes as white British Louise, through whom the novel is focalized, is traveling with her father to Lindisfarne, an island only reachable by a causeway in low tide. Louise and her father travel to the Holy Island every year to remember Louise’s mother, now dead, and the happy times they had as a family there. The island, therefore, is both wild and familiar to Louise, and—as with the wild in Almond’s other books—represents a place where she can connect with her past and heal her pain in the beauty of nature. “We’ve been coming here every year, ever since Mum died. It’s a holiday that’s also a pilgrimage, a journey into the beautiful past” (6), Louise says.
The boy they pass on the causeway seems to be an intrusion into this beautiful past; Louise’s father instantly labels the boy an outsider (“doesn’t look like he comes from here, does he?” he says on page eight) and refuses to offer him a ride or any other assistance. Strangers, for Louise’s father, are dangerous. He tells her, “The world’s going through some very dark days. You’ve got to be careful” (10). Louise has a more sympathetic view of the boy, but she nonetheless also describes him in terms of otherness; she writes in her journal that “He comes from nothing, from nowhere” and “He seems to be walking from a dream . . . I think he might be very beautiful” (16). Beauty is not entirely redeeming for Louise, because she concludes her journal entry by saying, “I think he might be terrifying” (17). It is no coincidence that both Louise and her father connect the boy with terror, since it turns out that the boy—Hassan—is from Syria. Almond constantly exposes the orientalist ideas that white British people have about Syrians; Hassan even exploits these ideas by performing magic tricks for tourists’ money. Hassan tells them that in Syria, “I perform, with the snake charmers and the acrobats and the singers and the storytellers” (73); Almond says that the tourists are “entranced by him . . . they want to be entranced by him” (73). This is the acceptable version of the mysterious East, but more troublesome versions of the stereotype—the terrorist and the refugee—are also lurking. Hassan asks Louise if she thinks of him as a refugee and the question “embarrasses” her because she “doesn’t know” the answer (59). Hassan questions Louise’s father’s new girlfriend directly as well: “Do you think I am one of those people? Because of Syria and my skin. That I was in London with my knife? That I am a terrorist come to Lindisfarne with dreams of slaughter?” (85-86). Almond’s island is a microcosm of white British (and American—Louise’s father’s girlfriend is from Missouri) attitudes toward Syrians and Middle Easterners
But Almond also shows us—literally—a different picture. Two different pictures, in fact. One is Louise’s childhood drawing, still preserved, in the upside-down boat which has been turned into a shed that comes with the cottage they return to every year. Louise looks for the drawing upon her arrival, “the pencil drawing I made when I was four, the three of us in an upside-down boat surrounded by moons and stars . . . Dad calls it my cave painting, created in a distant past, at the very birth of the world” (18). This “cave painting,” connecting Louise with wildness, contrasts with Hassan’s very modern picture—a photograph that he shows her, evidence that Syrians too are connected with Lindisfarne. The photographer, Hassan’s father, took the picture of Louise and her parents years ago. Hassan’s pilgrimage is to a place that he, like Louise, belongs to, its wild and civilized parts, its modern and its ancient. In typical poetic fashion, Almond breaks down stereotypes and connects humanity through the timelessness of nature. At the end of the book Louise kisses Hassan, at the same time imagining, not just herself in the upside-down boat, but “all of us . . . all the living and the dead, all carried upside down through the astounding stars” (119). Island is a hopeful small book that takes readers into the wild—and into the diverse and astounding world.