Change brings loss and hope to a remote valley

Who's it for?

Reading for Pleasure

Sharing at storytime or reading independently  5-9 years

Active Reading: where will this book take you? 

Sharing and exploring through creative cross-curricular activities  5-12+ years

Adapt our activities to suit your children’s interests and abilities

About this book

“He woke her early. ‘Bring your fiddle,’ he said. The day was dawning. Into the valley they walked...”

In sparse and lyrical prose illustrated with stunning landscapes and naturalistic vignettes, The Dam tells the story of a pilgrimage: a journey to the heart of an abandoned community in a remote Northumbrian valley where a dam is being constructed. 

“This will be gone…. and this will be washed away….and these can never live here again....” a father says to his daughter, as they make their way to a deserted village. “Play for all that are gone and for all that are still to come…” 

Pulling boards off doors and windows, they play in every house. Their music dances around the rooms and across the roofs, away into a landscape poised for change. Time passes and the waters rise, and many things are drowned and lost. But other things are born and made – a beautiful lake and more besides. The Dam is a book about one particular place and time, but loss and change are everywhere. What has gone lives on inside our memories, and if we let it, hope will always lead the way. 

Father and daughter enter every house      Image copyright Levi Pinfold for Walker Books

The story at the heart of this book is true. A dam was built to create the Kielder Water reservoir. A village was flooded to make way for it, and early one morning a father and daughter really did play and sing in every house. That girl was Kathryn Tickell. She grew up to become one of the UK’s most respected folk musicians, and nearly forty years after it happened, she and her father shared their story with writer David Almond.

“I had this shiver up my spine,” said David, talking about their conversation, “and I just knew it had to be a book. For them, it was something that happened long ago, but to an outsider like me, it had this wonderful, almost mythic proportion to it.”

So he wrote a story of his own - words that he describes as “musical notes in the landscape of the illustration” – and award-winning illustrator Levi Pinfold painted pictures that gave those words a place to dance.

“People ask whether you know what the illustrations are going to be like,” said David, “but you have no idea. You have a vague concept in your mind, but when you work with someone like Levi, he gives you something so much more. And you say – oh yes! That’s what it needs to look like….”

The Dam won the 2019 Teach Primary KS1 Book Award and has been nominated for others including the 2020 CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal. Its Italian translation (La Diga) won the Premio Letteratura Ragazzi for the best children’s poetry book of 2019 and the Andersen Prize for best illustrated book.

David Almond talked to Cast of Thousands about writing this book, and why music is so important to him. You can read his words here 

Sharing this book and talking about it

Before reading, talk about change.

What has changed in your lives? What is changing now? How does this make you feel? Does change involve loss? How can we help ourselves embrace the possibilities of change? 

Share the book, making sure everyone can see the pictures. Some are tiny, so you might want to project the spreads onto a screen or use multiple copies. 

Kathryn playing in one of the empty houses      Image copyright Levi Pinfold for Walker Books


Make time to talk about your reactions and responses.

What did you like about this book? How did it make you feel? Did it raise questions? Bring back memories? Make you imagine something? How would you describe this book? What makes it interesting for older readers? 

It’s rare for a picturebook to be inspired by an engineering project. Can you think of other picturebooks inspired by unusual subject matter or real-life stories?

To listen to Kathryn Tickell's playlist of traditional music while you're reading, visit soundcloud here


What next? Activities...

"Archie Dagg the piper played here. And Gracie Gray, she of the gorgeous voice…Will Taylor and his lovely violin. The piccolo of Billy Ballantine.”

What does this book tell us about music? How is it depicted?

Listen to samples of traditional music from different places, times and cultures and talk about your responses.

Does anyone play, sing or listen to traditional music? Pool your knowledge and experiences. Invite traditional musicians to share their music and show you their instruments. 

What could David Almond mean when he says “the music is inside us. It flows through all the dams in us”? Listen to music and write about how it makes you feel. 

Learn a traditional circle dance, then write instructions on how to perform it. Give your instructions to another class. Can they follow them successfully? 

This book tells the story of some really big changes. What changes in this book, and why? What happens because of those changes?

Write a story about something that changes. Read your stories aloud and talk about them. Has everyone picked the same theme? How many different kinds of change have you explored?

The valley changes as the waters rise       Image copyright Levi Pinfold for Walker Books

Examine Levi Pinfold’s vignettes. What do you notice about their subjects and the way they’re drawn? How are they arranged on the pages? What effect does this give?

Create observational drawings of plants or other natural objects using black, grey and white pencils, charcoal and pastels.

Print thumbnail-sized photocopies of your artwork and use to explore a variety of multiple-image layouts. Once you’re happy with your design, stick the vignettes in place to create a double-page spread. 

In fewer than 350 words this picturebook explores complex ideas using direct and appealing language, evokes memories and makes an impact. What has David Almond included, and what has he omitted? Does he tell us everything, or does he leave gaps? What do the pictures say that the words don’t? 

Read the text aloud. Can you feel the rhythms? Talk about David’s choice of words, the length and structure of his sentences, his use of repetition and anything else you notice about this text.

Develop an outline for a very short story about an outing you remember. Concentrate on the main events, emotions and observations  – draw diagrams to help you decide what to include and what to omit. Write and re-write your text, aiming for language that sings when read aloud. When you’re happy, divide your text into sections, one for each spread of a picturebook. 

Swap texts with someone and illustrate their story. 
If you like, you could borrow a visual idea from Levi Pinfold to develop in your artwork: limited colour palette, close observational drawing, dramatic landscapes and viewpoints, multiple vignettes…

What does the word wilderness mean to you? Talk about the wild open spaces in this book. How are they similar to places you know, and how do they differ? 

Where are the UK’s wildest places? Find them on a map. How far is it from your school to Kielder Water? Find out about the Forestry Commission, the UK's National Parks Service and other organisations caring for wild places. 

Can you go somewhere wild? It doesn’t have to be a Northumbrian valley - there are pockets of wildness almost everywhere. Sit quietly in your wild place, watching and listening. Write notes or draw pictures about what you can hear, smell, feel and see. Look carefully, look closely – some of the wild things could be very small… 

Take photos of your wild place and print, leaving wide borders. Inspired by your field notes, memories and imaginations, fill the borders in the wildest or most interesting ways you can devise.

Extend by...

• writing descriptively about your wild space and what you noticed in it 

• drawing a map of an imaginary wild place and writing an adventure story set there

• writing about what happened when you visited the abandoned village in this book

Wild places are important      Image copyright Levi Pinfold for Walker Books


Civil engineers ‘design, create and connect up the world around us. They help make our villages, towns and cities work for the people that live there.’ (

Where is your nearest dam or reservoir? What kind of civil engineering projects are happening in your area? How has your town or landscape been affected by such projects in the past? Find out what has been constructed and why. If possible, visit a site to learn more.

The dam under construction     Image copyright Levi Pinfold for Walker Books

There’s a lot of water in the Kielder reservoir – about 200 billion litres, in fact! 

Is it possible to understand numbers like this? Try to express them in ways that make sense – books like How Many Jelly Beans? by Andrea Menotti and Yancey Labat might help.

Explore the capacity of differently-shaped and sized containers. Research the capacity of real-world objects - a bathtub holds about 300 litres; an Olympic-sized pool about 2,500,000 litres. How many litres of water would be needed to fill your bedroom?

Multiply the length, breadth and height of a room in cm, then divide by 1000 to get the capacity in litres....

Why do we need water? How much do we need, and what happens if we drink water that isn’t safe? Find out about the water cycle and why we should conserve water. Design a poster telling people how to reduce water consumption.

Kielder reservoir is managed by Northumbrian Water. Where does your water come from? How does your water company make it safe to drink? 

The Kielder Reservoir was created to supply clean, fresh water      Image copyright Levi Pinfold for Walker Books


What does this book tell us about the dam and its impact?

Read the text and examine the pictures to gather evidence. Which outcomes were positive and which negative? List them. Is it possible to say whether building the dam was a good thing or a bad thing?  Can some things be both?

Pretend you’re living in the village before the dam was built. What is your life like? What do you think about the dam? What will you miss when you have to leave? What would you like to tell the dam-builders? Could you stop them? How?

Imagine you’re one of the people building the dam. What will you tell the villagers who are losing their homes? How will you persuade them to back your plan?

Roleplay conversations between a villager and a dam-builder - where are you? How and why did you meet? - or nominate someone to play a TV reporter to interview both sides. Extend by devising short dramas. 

Ask half your class to write an impartial newspaper report about the controversy while the other half writes a biased opinion piece. Share and discuss. When do we need facts and when do we need opinions? Can we please everyone? What helps us make good decisions about challenging issues? What gets in the way?

Is there an issue in school or locally that divides opinion? Could the ideas you’ve explored during this activity help you make progress?  

Did the project destroy or bring hope?     Image copyright Levi Pinfold for Walker Books


If you liked this, try...

The Greenling by Levi Pinfold 

The Django by Levi Pinfold

The Song from Somewhere Else by A.F. Harrol and Levi Pinfold

The Colour of the Sun by David Almond

Mouse Bird Snake Wolf by David Almond and Dave McKean

Town is by the Sea by Joanne Schwarz, illustrated by Sydney Smith

Links and resources

To listen to a Kathryn Tickell playlist, visit soundcloud here

To read a conversation with David Almond about The Dam on the Cast of Thousands blog, click here

A version of this article was published in Teach Primary Magazine. You can access a free downloadable copy via the Teachwire website here

For David Almond's website, click here

For Levi Pinfold's website, click here

Find out about Kielder Water here

If you would like to support our work by buying books featured on this website, please visit the Cast of Thousands bookshop at

You'll find The Dam and other titles on our Extra-special nonfiction: WATER booklist, to view it click HERE

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