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?