Sunday, February 21, 2016


by David Almond
Recommended Ages: 12+

I mentioned in my review of David Almond's excellent book Kit's Wilderness that the silver Michael L. Printz Honor Book medal is probably a better sale driver than the gold Printz Award itself, since I for one love many runners-up for that young adult fiction award, but almost never touch the winners. Well, this book, Skellig, is one of those lucky runners-up, and that silver medal is proudly embossed on its cover, at least in its American editions. But perhaps more importantly, it went for the gold in the Carnegie Medal race of 1998 - that's the highest award for children's literature in the U.K. Even more notably, it was named among the "70th Anniversary Top Ten" of that award in 2007. So it stands in some very classy company. Maybe they left that bit off the American covers just because the Printz Award is American. But I find it neat to think of this book in the company of Mary Norton's The Borrowers, Philippa Pearce's Tom's Midnight Garden, and Philip Pullman's Northern Lights (American Title: The Golden Compass).

Folks familiar with Kit's Wilderness may notice some shared themes between these two books, such as the image of a baby sister being held close to a teenaged brother's heart, and a preoccupation with aspects of the theory of evolution. Both books are examples of the young-adult strain of magical realism: stories that combine real-world settings and characters with strange phenomena, such as ghosts, fictional characters appearing in reality, and psychic communication.

In this book, a middle-school student named Michael is having trouble dealing with his family's move into a fixer-upper house in a strange new neighborhood, where he is now a bus ride away from his school and his football (soccer) friends; at the same time, his baby sister's serious illness puts a strain on the whole family. In a rebellious mood, he ignores his parents' warning to stay out of the rickety garage, which could collapse any moment. There, behind an abandoned chest of drawers, he discovers an extraordinary creature who eventually (Page 87 in my edition) admits that his name is Skellig.

Who or what Skellig is, Michael and Mina, the home-schooled girl down the street, can only guess. They only know they must keep him secret. They must move him to a safer place. And they must try to help him get better. Skellig seems to have given up on life, slouching in the darkness, eating spiders and mice, while suffering arthritis pain and general weakness. He's a funny fellow, though. He coughs up pellets of compacted fur and bone after eating small creatures, rather like the digestive byproducts of an owl. He is lighter than he looks, perhaps due to having hollow bones. Also, he has beautiful, white, feathery wings.

He could, Michael realizes, be the very thing his unnamed baby sister needs as she faces a critical heart operation. And she could be just what Skellig needs too.

Rich in emotion, full of family love, laced with quotations from William Blake and meaningful glances from a blackbird and a cat named Whisper, scented with the aroma of Chinese takeaway, and decorated with the art works of a couple of surprisingly talented kids - one of whom is also a killer footballer - this book deserves every carat of its Carnegie gold and may, if I may be excused for supposing it, have been robbed of the first-ever Printz award. It's a novel in which the unchallenged acceptance of the theory of evolution exists side-by-side with an equally unapologetic belief in angels. It is full of unexplained strangeness, touches of impulsive fun, interesting side characters, and a lean, sinewy grace that drives the dramatic momentum. It doesn't end a word late, and arrives at the finish line with plenty of the reader's attention to spare. And it now has a prequel, titled My Name Is Mina.

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