The Fire-Eaters

Book review by
Matt Berman, Common Sense Media
The Fire-Eaters Book Poster Image
The beautiful and the bizarre coexist here.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Positive Messages

Children's hands are beaten with a strap; some childish wrestling. A performer pushes a skewer through his cheeks.


A few mild expletives.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Children and adults smoke and drink beer.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that a scene where a fire-eater pushes a skewer through his cheeks may be too intense for some readers. Kids may have questions about the Cuban Missile Crisis, and WWII in Burma.

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Kid, 11 years old April 9, 2008

it sucks

it sucks with a capital s

What's the story?

There's a lot going on in Bobby Burns's life. His father is ill, perhaps seriously, he is just starting at an abusive school, he has come to care for a mentally ill fire-eater, and the Cuban Missile Crisis is beginning.

His lower-class life on the coaly shore of Keely Bay in England can be a hard one, where boys are expected to be tough and outsiders are viewed with suspicion and hostility. But it has its moments of beauty and wonder as well, and he wouldn't give it up for anything. But between his father going for tests in the hospital, and the Americans and Russians getting ready to annihilate each other and the rest of the world, he worries that it may be taken away anyway.

Is it any good?

This is a lovely and satisfying book, though as with some of Almond's other novels, the beautiful and the bizarre coexist here. Some of the fire-eater's insane antics are disturbing, and the treatment of the students at Bobby's new school is certainly abusive by modern standards. But abusers get their comeuppance, the insane find peace, and the harsh and tough discover their hearts. Miracles happen, none greater than the Americans and Russians stepping back from the brink.

David Almond is certainly unique among children's authors (and perhaps adult as well). His books tend to be short on story and long on setting, atmosphere, and flights of lyricism and romantic vision so stunning that they bring a lump to the throat, and so poetic that they far outshine books actually written as poetry.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the importance of love and family, particularly in times of crisis. How do Bobby's strong relationships with the people and places around him help through the dark, stressful events of the story?

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