cover image THE FIRE-EATERS


David Almond, . . Delacorte, $15.95 (176pp) ISBN 978-0-385-73170-6

Although this distinctively British novel contains a dark quality and mystical overtone that will be familiar to Almond's (Skellig ; Kit's Wilderness ) fans, the story's underpinnings are very much grounded in reality. In September 1962, Bobby Burns enters a new, elite school (for which students must qualify by exam) in his coal-mining community outside Newcastle. Bobby's reflections, enhanced by powerful images of nature ("And all the time the careless stars looked down and showed how tiny we were and how insignificant we were and how maybe we just didn't matter at all"), convey the young protagonist's uncertainties and a sense of the world itself being on the cusp of change. Bobby is worried about his survival at school, where corporal punishment is practiced indiscriminately, and how this "opportunity" may affect his future. He is also concerned about the well-being of his father, who has become ill, as well as new acquaintance Mr. McNulty, a half-crazed fire-eater who performs various forms of torture upon himself in exchange for a few tossed coins. Bobby's growing tensions mirror the fears of the townspeople as the Bay of Pigs drama plays out, drawing families, friends and strangers together for a brief but intense period of time. Besides providing a moving portrait of a boy's growing pains, the author expresses the camaraderie within a working-class community and the love within Bobby's family. Sensitive readers will marvel at Almond's ability to show, not tell, with his highly introspective—at times enigmatic—writing style. Ages 8-up. (May)