Cover image for The fire-eaters
The fire-eaters
Almond, David, 1951-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Delacorte Press, [2003]

Physical Description:
218 pages ; 22 cm
In 1962 England, despite observing his father's illness and the suffering of the fire-eating Mr. McNulty, as well as enduring abuse at school and the stress of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Bobby Burns and his family and friends still find reasons to rejoice in their lives and to have hope for the future.
General Note:
"Portions of this novel appeared in ... the magazines Panurge and Stand and in A Kind of Heaven"--T.p. verso.

Originally published: Great Britain : Hodder Children's Books, 2003.
Reading Level:
520 Lexile.
Program Information:
Accelerated Reader AR MG 3.6 5.0 79071.

Reading Counts RC 6-8 2.7 6 Quiz: 36465 Guided reading level: x.

Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
Y FICTION Young Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



Bobby Burns knows he's a lucky lad. Growing up in sleepy Keely Bay, Bobby is exposed to all manner of wondrous things: stars reflecting off the icy sea, a friend that can heal injured fawns with her dreams, a man who can eat fire. But darkness seems to be approaching Bobby's life from all sides. Bobby's new school is a cold, cruel place. His father is suffering from a mysterious illness that threatens to tear his family apart. And the USA and USSR are testing nuclear missiles and creeping closer and closer to a world-engulfing war. Together with his wonder-working friend, Ailsa Spink, and the fire-eating illusionist McNulty, Bobby will learn to believe in miracles that will save the people and place he loves.

Author Notes

David Almond was born on May 15, 1951 in the United Kingdom. He writes novels for children and young adults including The Savage, Slog's Dad, My Name Is Mina, The Boy Who Swam with Piranhas, and The Tightrope Walkers. He has received numerous awards including the Carnegie Medal for Skellig, two Whitbread Awards, the Michael L. Printz Award for young-adult books for Kit's Wilderness, the Smarties Prize and the Boston Globe Horn Book Award for The Fire-Eaters, the 2015 Guardian Children's Fiction Prize for A Song for Ella Grey, and the Hans Christian Andersen Award.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Gr. 6-8. Almond returns to some familiar themes--the mystery and the pain of life--in a dramatic story drawn from both global and personal events. It is 1962, and the world is on the brink of nuclear destruction. For Bobby Burns, the waste and ruin is even closer to home: his father is seriously ill, and a cruel schoolmaster is forcing Bobby to take a stand that may destroy his educational chances. As in all of Almond's books, everyday detail mingles with the grotesque. The bizarre here comes in the form of McNulty, a fire-eater and strongman who also pushes sharp objects through his flesh--an explicit demonstration of pain mirrored by Bobby's sticking pins in his hands as a sacrifice to keep his father healthy. For anyone who loves words, Almond's books are a pleasure. But this time the Newcastle accent used by most of the characters may be difficult to grasp initially, and though Almond brings together the strands of his story, some of his many characters are not well integrated. Whatever the book's flaws, though, Almond's writing is so imaginative and layered that turning the pages is always meaningful. --Ilene Cooper Copyright 2004 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

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. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved All rights reserved.

School Library Journal Review

Gr 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 (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



ONE It all starts on the day I met McNulty. I was with my mam. We left Dad at home beside the sea. We took the bus to Newcastle. We got out below the statue of the angel, then headed down toward the market by the river. She was all in red. She kept singing "The Keel Row" and swinging my arm to the rhythm of the song. A crowd had gathered beyond the market stalls but we couldn't see what held so many people there. She led me closer. She stood on tiptoes. There were bodies all around me, blocking out the light. Seagulls were squealing. It had been raining. There were puddles in the joints between the cobblestones. I kicked water across my shiny new black shoes. The splashes turned to dark stains on my jeans. The water splashed on her ankles as well but she didn't seem to feel it. I tugged her hand and wanted to move away, but she didn't seem to feel it. His voice was muffled by the bodies, and at first it seemed so distant. "Pay!" he yelled. "You'll not see nowt till you pay!" I tugged her hand again. "Are you not listening?" he yelled. I raised my eyes and tried to see. And she put her hands beneath my arms and lifted me and I teetered on my toes and there he was, at the center of us all. I looked into his eyes. He looked back into mine. And it was as if my heart stopped beating and the world stopped turning. That was when it started. That moment, that Sunday, late summer, 1962. He was a small, wild-eyed, bare-chested man. His skin was covered in scars and bruises. There were rough and faded tattoos of beasts and women and dragons. He had a little canvas sack on a long stick. He kept shoving it at the crowd. "Pay!" he yelled and snarled. "You'll not get nowt till you pay." Some of the crowd turned away and pushed past us as we moved forward. They shook their heads and rolled their eyes. He was pathetic, they said. He was a fake. One of them leaned close to Mam. "Take the lad away," he said. "Some of the tricks is just disgusting. Not for bairns to see. It shouldn't be allowed." McNulty's hair was black. He had pointed gold teeth at the front of his mouth and he wore tiny golden earrings. There were deep creases in his cheeks. The bridge was high behind him. The sun shone through its arch. Steam and scents from the hot dog stalls and popcorn makers drifted across us. Mam held me against her. "Reach into my pocket," she said. "Find him a coin." I reached down and took out some silver. When I looked up again his little sack was right before my eyes. "Into the sack with it, bonny lad," he said. I dropped the coin in. He held my eye with his. He grinned. "Good lad," he snarled. He took the sack away. "Pay," he yelled, shoving the sack at other faces. "Get your money out and pay!" She pushed my shoulders, helping me forward. I squirmed through, right to the front of the crowd. "Bonny lad!" he muttered when he saw me there. He looked through the crowd. "Bonny lady." The stick and the sack were on the ground. He flexed his muscles. A cart wheel lay on the cobbles beside him. He stood it on end, in front of him. It had heavy wooden spokes, a thick steel rim. It was as high as his chest. "Could McNulty lift this?" he hissed. He took it in his hands, spread his legs, bent his knees and lifted it to his thighs and let it rest there. "Could he?" he said through gritted teeth. "Could he?" There were tears of strain in his eyes. He groaned, lifted again, a sudden jerk that took the cart wheel high. We gasped. We backed away. He leaned his head back and rested the wheel on his brow so that it stood above him, with the sun and the bridge caught in its ring. He shuffled on the cobbles, balancing himself with his elbows wide and his hands gripping the rim of steel. He grunted and hissed. Then he lifted the cart wheel free and let it fall with a crash and the whole earth seemed to shake. He glared at us. He blinked, wiped his tears away. "See? See what a man can do?" I reached behind me but Mam's hand wasn't there. I looked back through the crowd and saw her and she smiled and held up her hand, telling me to stay there. "What next?" said McNulty. "The fire or the chains or the..." He fell silent as his eye met mine again. He leaned close. "Help me, bonny," he whispered. He reached for my hand. I turned to Mam. She waved again and smiled, as if to tell me everything was fine, she was still there, there was nothing to fear. He cupped my shoulder and drew me to him. Dozens of eyes watched. "This is my assistant," he said. "His name is..." I couldn't speak. He leaned close. He cupped his hand across his mouth, whispered into my ear. "His name is..." "R-Robert," I stammered. "R-Robert!" he announced. He crouched in front of me. His skin glistened. I caught the smoky sweaty scent of him. I caught the sour smell of the river flowing darkly nearby. I looked into the black center of his eyes. "There is a box here, bonny," he told me. He slid a casket to my feet. "Open it," he said. I did nothing. "Open it, Bobby," he whispered. With trembling fingers, I opened it. Inside were needles and pins and fishhooks and skewers and knives and scissors, some of them all rusted, some of them all bright. "Take out something awful," he said. "Take out the thing that you think should make the most pain." I stared into his eyes, so deep and dark. "Do it, Bobby," he said. I took out a silver skewer, as long as my forearm. It had a Saracen's head as a handle. The point was needle-sharp. He shuddered. "Well chosen, Bobby." He stood up. He held the skewer between his index fingers for the crowd to see. "Who would dare?" he said. "Bobby!" I looked up at him. "Bobby, pass the sack to them. Tell them to put their coins in it. Tell them they'll not see nowt until they pay." I just wanted to escape, but the bodies were packed before me. The faces were all smiles. Mam had her hand across her mouth. She widened her eyes, she raised her shoulders, she tried to go on smiling. "Do it, Bobby," he said. "Do the buggers think a man like me can live on fresh air? Pay! Tell them! Get your money out and pay!" I weakly pushed the sack into the crowd. McNulty barked his demands. Mam leaned far toward me, dropped three coins in. I wanted to reach out to her, grab her hand, get her to pull me away. Then McNulty snapped: "Enough, Bobby. They're tightfisted crooks and they won't give us what we need. But to hell with them. Let's give them something to infect their waking and fire their dreams." I turned to him. He touched my cheek. He drew me to his side. He spoke to me as if no one else existed, as if there were just the two of us there beside the river on that brightening late-summer day. "Help me, son," he said. He stood stock-still. He lowered his head, closed his eyes. He breathed deeply. He muttered incomprehensible words. He raised his head, opened his eyes. He held the point of the skewer against his cheek. He looked blankly at the crowd. "Bobby," he said. "Touch me if I cry out. Catch me if I fall." Excerpted from The Fire-Eaters by David Almond All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.