This guide was prepared by Clifford Wohl, educational consultant.
David Almond’s extraordinary novels have established him as an author of unique insight and skill. These stories encapsulate his endless sense of mystery and wonderment, as they weave a tangible tapestry of growing up in a large, loving family. Here are the kernels of his novels—joy and fear, darkness and light, the healing power of love and imagination in overcoming the wounds of ignorance and prejudice. These stories merge memory and dream, the real and the imagined, in a collection of exquisite tenderness.
“Loyal readers . . . may fall into nothing short of rapture.”–The Horn Book Magazine
1. In the introduction, David Almond tells us that the stories in Counting Stars are about his childhood. He is the narrator–the I. He reveals much about himself in bits and pieces throughout the book. What is your impression of him? How is he like you or your friends? How is he different? How is the world he grew up in the same as–or different from–your own?
2. Almond transports us to his hometown, Felling, with his stories. We learn about the town’s history, its landmarks, parks, and people. Would you like to live in Felling? How is it like your hometown? How do you think Almond felt about his town as a child? How do you think he feels as an adult writing about it now?
3. Almond’s portrait of Felling is very real, very particular. We can almost draw a map of it from the information he provides. But the description of Jonadab is different, and we are left to wonder if it is a real place or an imagined one. What do you think? Is Jonadab a fantasy? Are the children we meet there (John and Jane) wild, as they insist, or gentle, as Almond says? What do Jonadab and Felling share that makes them both feel like home?
4. Stoker’s been after us for days. None of us knows why. Somebody must have been spinning stories about us, telling lies. There’s four of us: Mickey, Tash, Coot, and me. We’re sure we’ve done nothing wrong and said nothing wrong.
“But that’s it,” says Tash. “With him you don’t need to. He believes what he wants to believe. That’s why he’s so wild” (p. 112).
Bullies show up in several stories in Counting Stars. Remember Adrian Carr in “Beating the Bounds,” Stoker in “Behind the Billboards,” Ken and Terry Hutchinson in “Chickens,” and Miss Sloane in “Jack Law.” Whether the bully is an older kid or a cruel headmistress at school, the question is always how to stop him or her. Talk about the bullies in the book. How are they handled? Are they ever tamed? Talk about bullies you have had to deal with or have seen tormenting other kids. What did you do about them?
5. Throughout the book, we see different sides of Almond’s relationship with his father. How is it different from Almond’s relationship with his mother? How is it different from his father’s relationship with Colin and with Almond’s sisters? Do you think the gender of a parent or caretaker affects how he or she relates to a child or teenager?
6. Faith–having it, questioning it, losing it, holding on to it–is one of the themes Almond deals with in many of these stories. Regarding religious faith, Almond tells us, “As I grew older, of course, and once I’d left St. John’s myself, I soon saw through this subterfuge: the attempts of an old Irish priest to stifle the liberating effects that education might have on our minds, to keep us in a state of obeisance and fright before his worn-out religion” (p. 15). How did Almond’s attitude toward religion change as he got older? What problems did he have with his religion? How do you look upon religion? What role does it play in your life? Have your views changed as you’ve gotten older?
7. In “Jack Law,” Carmel Bright tells Almond about Jack Law and how the children at school failed to intervene when Jack was so severely–and unfairly–punished by the headmistress.
“Would it happen now? Would no one make a move and run out there and bring him in, no matter what the teachers said or did? Would his brothers not raise their fists and fight to get him back?. . . Maybe not, but way back then the things we saw were all mixed up with the things we were told to believe. The things we knew were wrong were all mixed up with the things we were told were right” (p. 185).
Have you ever been in a situation where you questioned the rightness of what an authority told you? Are we encouraged to question the correctness of our parents, our teachers, our government? Are such challenges to authority ever successful?
8. Death and loss are young Almond’s constant companions. Although his sister Barbara and his father both die while Almond is fairly young, they remain important people in his life. How are their memories kept alive? Do you think about the people you’ve known who have died? What roles do your memories of them play in your life?
9. In “Jack Law,” Carmen Bright says, “Stories change in the telling, memory makes up as much as it knows” (p. 178). In “The Kitchen,” Almond writes, “We listen to the truth, the memories, the bits made up. . . . We listen to the stories, that for an impossible afternoon hold back the coming dark” (p. 176).
Where stories come from and their importance in our lives are important themes of Counting Stars. As a writer, as a reader, and as a listener, where do you think stories originate? How much of the fiction you read–or write, if you are a writer–do you think is autobiographical? In listening to your own family’s stories, how much do you believe is true and how much made up or altered by faulty memory or wishful thinking?
10. Each of the stories in this collection has a distinct mood that the author conveys to us almost from the first line. Take a careful look at the story “My Mother’s Photographs” to get a sense of Almond’s writing style. How does he convey a feeling of tenderness while also giving us a good deal of background information? Notice his use of metaphor for extending the meaning of the information given. Examine the details he provides. Discuss why he is so specific with names of people and places. Then look at other stories and see whether you recognize some of the same techniques, as well as others.
11. Can you find ideas, themes, characters, plotlines, and settings in any of these stories that also appear in Almond’s novels (Skellig, Kit’s Wilderness, Heaven Eyes, and Secret Heart)? How did he develop them in the novels? What do you like more or less about a collection of short stories as compared to a novel? What are the strengths and weaknesses of the short story as a form of fiction?
12. Which is your favorite story in this collection? Why?
Looking Back: A Book of Memories
People are constantly asking two-time Newbery Medalist Lois Lowry where she gets the ideas for her stories. In this fascinating memoir, Lowry answers this question, sharing recollections of childhood friends, places, and family.
Father Water, Mother Woods: Essays on Fishing and Hunting in the North Woods
Master of the wilderness tale Gary Paulsen recounts his adventures with friends in the wilds of northern Minnesota. There fishing and hunting are serious business, requiring skill, intuition, and respect for the power of Nature.
The Pigman and Me
Paul Zindel recounts the place and time when the seed for his outrageously quirky, beloved novel The Pigman was planted in his mind. On Staten Island, New York, the teenage Zindel encounters Nonno Frankie Vivona, who years later becomes Zindel’s Pigman.
Zebra and Other Stories
In six powerful stories about facing adversity and unexpected loss, Potok weaves themes of hope, grief, regret, and love into fascinating character studies. The rich language of Potok’s writing is in accord with the depth of these remarkable stories.
About the Author
“I grew up in a big extended Catholic family [in the north of England]. I listened to the stories and songs at family parties. I listened to the gossip that filled Dragone’s coffee shop. I ran with my friends through the open spaces and the narrow lanes. We scared each other with ghost stories told in fragile tents on dark nights. We promised never-ending friendships and whispered of the amazing journeys we’d take together.
“I sat with my grandfather in his allotment, held tiny Easter chicks in my hands while he smoked his pipe and the factory sirens wailed and larks yelled high above. I trembled at the images presented to us in church, at the awful threats and glorious promises made by black-clad priests with Irish voices. I scribbled stories and stitched them into little books. I disliked school and loved the library, a little square building in which I dreamed that books with my name on them would stand one day on the shelves.
“Skellig, my first children’s novel, came out of the blue, as if it had been waiting a long time to be told. It seemed to write itself. It took six months, was rapidly taken by Hodder Children’s Books, and has changed my life. By the time Skellig came out, I’d written my next children’s novel, Kit’s Wilderness. These books are suffused with the landscape and spirit of my own childhood. By looking back into the past, by reimagining it and blending it with what I see around me now, I found a way to move forward and to become something that I am intensely happy to be: a writer for children.”
From the Paperback edition.