David Almond’s 2012 novel The Boy Who Swam with Piranhas Most recent English edition: Candlewick Press, 2015. ISBN 9780763661694. is a whimsical story about self-discovery and finding your place in the world. Read two reviews of the book by Papmambook’s teenage authors.
Anastasia Viatkina, 12
It seems impossible—the number of feelings a person experiences over the course of his or her life. Happiness, longing, hatred, sympathy, pride, sadness, jealousy, apathy...and that’s just some of all those feelings! It must be hard to describe so many feelings in one book. But David Almond tried to. And I think he managed. Of course, his novel The Boy Who Swam with Piranhas doesn’t describe all the feelings, but many of them are there.
Stan, the main character, is too grown-up for his age. It’s no surprise—it’s not easy to live with an uncle who forces you to work with him in his house, which he’s converted into a fish factory! Stanley would get up at six in the morning, work all day, get very tired, barely sleep, have no weekends or days off, and get nothing for his birthday. He didn’t go to school and didn’t go out. It was just fish, fish, fish all the time…I think you’d agree a teenage boy would find it hard to survive all that.
As in many works of literature, our protagonist is an orphan. Stan’s father perished in a terrible catastrophe and his mother died of grief. So Stan lives with his dad’s brother Ernie and his wife Annie.
I personally hate fish, and if I were Stan, I would have run off a lot sooner. But Stan has no problem with fish. He really loves his uncle and aunt, but fish simply mean too much to his Uncle Ernie. Once, when Stanley gets some goldfish, Ernie fries them all up, except the one he can’t catch. Can you imagine what that would be like? To have your only friends taken away and fried on a pan?
That’s when the boy can’t take it anymore. He runs away from home and joins a traveling carnival.
After Stanley runs away, Annie and Ernie lose their house and are forced to look for the boy on their own. The two adults are desperate: they’ve lost their home, their work, their money, and their nephew.
Meanwhile, the nephew is doing great: he has a job to his liking, people who love him, and interesting adventures. But one day, a legend comes to the fair. He can stay underwater for hours, communicate with the fish and...swim with piranhas. He tells Stan that he, Stan, is special. That fish see him as a brother. That Pancho Pirelli himself will teach him his skills. Can you imagine? An ordinary boy gets the chance to prove himself, to show he’s not just anyone, but the great Stanley Potts, who swims with bloodthirsty piranhas. People will look upon him with awe. What a dream!
When you describe it like that, it all seems impossible to imagine or achieve. But there are no two people in this world that are perfectly alike. We’re all different in our own way. We can all show what we’re made of. You just have to want it.
Getting back to our hero. He stands beside the great aquarium, full of piranhas gnashing their teeth. Lifting his head high, his cape flying in the wind, wearing trunks and goggles, Stan understands that he’ll make it. He dives. He dances underwater, and the piranhas wave their fins all around. He is their brother. In the first row are Annie and Ernie, watching with tears of happiness in their eyes, in awe of their boy. The family is together again. But this time it’s actually a FAMILY. A REAL family.
Polina Andreeva, 13
When I start reading a book, a picture starts to form in my mind’s eye. It starts out as a rough sketch, then fills in gradually with uneven strokes, coming through in greater and greater detail. It’s only completed when the book ends. I like to “copy it out,” using my words, rather than paints and paintbrushes. Some might say it’s just a regular summary of a favorite moment or the whole story, but it’s more than that. It’s the reflection of the book in my heart. When I close my eyes and call to mind David Almond’s The Boy Who Swam with Piranhas, I see a fair, hear carnival music and the din of a crowd….
The colorful rays of a projector fan out. The crowd mills about, bubbling and slowly pouring into the main event. The air is full of fanfare and joy. Hundreds of people crane their necks to see the show. Suddenly, the noise subsides and there’s quiet. Everyone is silent. There’s an aquarium with fish on stage, and a boy appears next to it with his assistant. The young performer looks funny and awkward in his costume, but the look in his eyes is somber and serious. Looking closer, we see that the creatures in the tank are no ordinary fish—they’re piranhas! They seem harmless, but if you throw them something, whether it’s a sandwich or an old shoe, you’ll see all the treachery of these predators. The water will froth and foam and, in an instant, there won’t be anything left of whatever you’d thrown them. The unflappable assistant demonstrates this as the people ooh, ahh, and grimace in horror. Meanwhile, the boy gets ready. The slight figure approaches the edge of the aquarium. Will he actually jump in? The audience freezes in terror and awe, sensing a spectacle. For a second, everything is still. The little hero raises his head, closes his eyes, and takes a step into the abyss….
I bought The Boy Who Swam with Piranhas at a book fair. As with its author, my encounter with it was completely by chance. I had some free time and the program said there would soon be an event with the British author David Almond. I decided to go and didn’t regret it.
A first impression can be so misleading! Before the event, he seemed like an ordinary, very serious man, but later I looked at him the way a five-year-old would at Santa Claus. David Almond loves to tell stories and answer children’s questions, and it’s easy to speak with him. Thanks to translator Olga Varshaver, we overcame the language barrier. Varshaver also translated this book and others by David Almond. After the event, I went straight to the book stand.
David Almond and his books proved to me that any dreams can come true—what matters is that you meet them halfway. Anything is possible, even swimming with piranhas! Although of course there are some nuances here: for one, you need a teacher, who swims with them himself, and it’s he that should seek you out first. And whether you want to be his student or not, his argument will be: “It’s your fate!” So choose a simpler dream! But know that if you really want it, even this one is within reach.
The story in itself is quirky and strange, but in a good way. At some points it’s like something out of Lewis Carroll. It has the beauty of an ancient legend or story, which we listen to and laugh, saying, “Oh, that could never have happened!,” even as we whisper to ourselves, “What if?” In short, I hope that if you ever happen to see this book in a bookstore, you’ll know exactly what to do.
See Papmambook’s interviews with David Almond, including one by a member of our teenage staff.
Translated from the Russian by Alisa Cherkasova
Cover image: candlewick.com
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