- Age Range: 8 and up
- Grade Level: 3 and up
- Lexile Measure: 520L (What's this?)
- Series: Costa Children's Book Award (Awards)
- Hardcover: 224 pages
- Publisher: Delacorte Books for Young Readers; First Edition edition (May 11, 2004)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0385731701
- ISBN-13: 978-0385731706
- Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 0.7 x 8.5 inches
- Shipping Weight: 12.5 ounces
- Average Customer Review: 13 customer reviews
Amazon Best Sellers Rank:
#5,443,953 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- #2276 in Books > Children's Books > Literature & Fiction > Historical Fiction > Europe
- #6677 in Books > Children's Books > Growing Up & Facts of Life > Family Life > Parents
- #12040 in Books > Children's Books > Growing Up & Facts of Life > Friendship, Social Skills & School Life > Emotions & Feelings
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The Fire-Eaters (Costa Children's Book Award (Awards)) Hardcover – May 11, 2004
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Continuing his tradition of strange and wild novels for young adults, David Almond, in The Fire Eaters, introduces a bizarre character making a sparse living as a self-mutilating, fire-swallowing street performer. McNulty's existence shakes young protagonist Bobby Burns to the core as he contemplates the end of the world (the year is 1962 and the U.S. and Soviet Union seem to be heading toward nuclear war), power, pain, class, and death, as well as friendship. The menace and sweetness in Bobby's life parallels the worlds, big and small, he inhabits. A loving family, seaside home, and good friends form the foundation. But a crack in that wall is spreading: Bobby's father is ill, class differences are separating him from his best friend, and a ruthless schoolmaster is forcing Bobby to understand that everything has a price. McNulty's growled refrain--"Pay! You'll not see nowt till you pay!"--reiterates the lesson for the often bewildered, but ever stronger boy. Readers familiar with Almond's other haunting books, including the award-winning Skellig, will welcome this rich, challenging novel. As always, Almond refuses to shy away from the big topics, resulting in a novel dappled with light and dark, filled with wonder and mystery. (Ages 12 and older) --Emilie Coulter
From School Library Journal
Grade 7 Up-It's 1962, and 12-year-old Bobby and his mom leave their small, seaside village in the north of England for a day trip to Newcastle. There, Bobby is staggered by his encounter with Mr. McNulty. This odd little man is his own wandering sideshow; he pierces his cheeks with a dagger, escapes from shackles, and breathes fire in exchange for coins. At home, Dad recognizes McNulty as a fellow veteran of World War II, who came home from Burma with his brain boiled by "too much war, too much heat, too many magic men." Meanwhile, Bobby enrolls at the prestigious Sacred Heart school with his new, upper-crust neighbor, Daniel. Both quickly suffer at the hands of Mr. Todd, a masochistic teacher. As Daniel plots revenge, Bobby worries that his father's increasingly frail health might prove fatal. Changing relationships with friends Ailsa and Joseph also bear heavily on Bobby, but overhanging everything is the Cuban missile crisis. During the climactic night as the disparate characters, including McNulty, gather at a bonfire on the beach, Bobby's fear that the flash of nuclear annihilation is as likely as dawn fulfills Almond's firm evocation of this particular time and place. The protagonist's ferocious love for his family, community, and life itself amply reward readers able to appreciate the uncompromising British idiom. The author's trademark themes-courage in resisting evil; the importance of love among friends and family, especially in the face of crisis; suffering and death amidst peace and beauty; and the fragility of life-are here in full, and resonate long after the last page is turned.
Joel Shoemaker, Southeast Junior High School, Iowa City, IA
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The protagonist passes the 11 plus and is thus accepted into a grammar school, where he is nevertheless subjected -along with other children there - to daily cruelty, and ingrained prejudices, which during the novel, and through a friendship, he gains the power to overcome.
At the same time there is a theme with a character - McNulty - of mental illness, as well as the strains on the family under the threat of a life threatening illness - all set against the fear of approaching apocalypse in the cuban missile crisis.
There is so much in this book, it cannot be described - it has to be read. And Reading is not a chore, because David Almond is such a good writer. His prose is simple, but still manages to be vivid and engaging.
This is a book to read and ponder. Highly recommended
Keely Bay is set apart from the rest of the world. It's the kind of place where a family can make a living simply by panning for the coal that appears naturally in the sea around it. Bobby Burns, however, is bound for higher things. He has been accepted into the nearby public school (along with some of his friends) and away from people like his friend Joseph. Then the world comes crashing down around him. When Bobby meets a mysterious fire-eater in a nearby city, that's the moment when his life starts to take a turn for the bizarre. Suddenly his dad has a mysterious illness and far away in America the Russian Missle Crisis is taking place. Bobby finds himself standing up to the oppressive corporeal punishment wielded at his school and dealing with the darkness that's coming far too close to his once perfect life. Deftly, author David Almond weaves fact and fancy, history and mystical goings-on to create a story that's technically fictional but more real than any other book being published today.
Almond as an author has always been fascinated with stories in which a young male protagonist has a deep connection with an older male father-figure. In "Skellig" (his best known and most magical work) it was the mysterious bird-man found in the boy's garage. In "Kit's Wilderness" it was both the boy's grandfather and the boy he befriended in the deep dark coal mines. Here, Bobby befriends a mysterious stranger (like in "Skellig") but also has a deep meaningful relationship with his own father (like in "Kit's Wilderness"). Also, Almond tends to place a magical girl-figure in his books. This one is no exception. And it's funny... for all that Mr. Almond can be relied upon to create such regular cut-out characters, his books are some of the freshest and deeply moving out there today. Every time I read a David Almond book I think it's the best thing I've ever read. Until I happen to read the next David Almond book and the whole process starts again. His talent is in his ability to weave plots, themes, and ideas together. The fact that Almond makes his work seem so effortless is part of its charm.
I doubt "The Fire-Eaters" is assigned all that often in school. Which is a real pity, to be blunt. Will kids who read it enjoy it? I dunno. Maybe. The book isn't particularly hard to get through, though the language may strike some Yankee tots as hard to translate. In the end though, I think it's perfect for the child reader that's just a hair touch smarter than his or her brethren. If you happen to know a child who excels a little more than their fellows, try "The Fire-Eaters" out on them. They may see the heights to which Almond aspires even more clearly than I do. A great work of art.
He is also meeting new people. There is McNulty, a fire-eater and escapologist whose mind was unhinged in WWII. There is Daniel, the new kid in town, who looks down on Keely Bay's working class inhabitants. Then there are the cruel teachers at Bobby's new school, who resort to beatings when they feel children don't know their place.
Together, Bobby and Daniel mount a protest against the barbaric practice of strapping. The potential price of expulsion seems insignificant compared to the protests against nuclear war they see on television. When Bobby asks his father about the rioting, he answers, "That's just people doing what they should do, making their voice heard, yelling against what they know is wrong."
David Almond's books often deal with themes of faith and redemption. THE FIRE-EATERS contains both of these elements, along with a reverence for even the most damaged lives. The night when nuclear war is averted, Bobby, his family, McNulty and the neighbors gather on the beach, eating, drinking and trying to spend time together with the people and places they love before the world ends, or changes forever.
THE FIRE-EATERS contains a powerful message of hope. The fear of nuclear war, which was at its height during the Cuban Missile Crisis, was for its generation what the fear of terrorism is for this generation. Not every disaster can be averted, as was seen during the tragic events of September 11th, but the FIRE-EATERS is a reminder that these moments of crisis can bring clarity to our lives and help us to treasure those things that are truly meaningful.
--- Reviewed by Sarah A. Wood