David Almond: Skellig (1998)


I often think that the best books for children are not just books for a particular age group but timeless tales for any age. Just think of Antoine de St Exupéry’s The Little Prince. It’s a children’s book but it is so much more. And so is Skellig, David Almond’s wondrous, lyrical novel of love and healing.

Skellig combines a mundane story with something magical and mysterious. Michael is ten years old when his family moves into a new house. His baby sister is very ill and there’s no telling whether she will survive.

One afternoon Michael enters the dilapidated garage at the end of the garden and discovers a strange being. It looks like a shrivelled man, covered in spiders and cobwebs. Is it an old man? Is it a bird? Is it an angel?

Michael is traumatized by the events at home, by the constant fear his baby sister might die, and his parent’s decide to keep him at home. One day, after he has discovered the strange being, he meets Mina. Mina shows him a world he didn’t know. Her mother, a free-spirit who doesn’t believe in schools, teaches Mina at home. Mina knows a lot about evolution and birds and painting; she loves to draw and quotes William Blake.

Her mother teaches her many things other children learn at school but she also teaches her a sense of wonder Together the two children find out who or what Skellig is.

Skellig is such a magical book. Lyrical, spiritual and philosophical, but very realistic too. It’s an elusive book, that is hard to describe without breaking its spell. It’s a story of love and loss, grief and joy, inspired by tales of angels, the evolution of birds and William Blake. Every reader interprets Skellig in another way. After I finished it I’m still not sure what Skellig is but it doesn’t matter. It’s enough to feel how inspired David Almond was when he wrote this novel. Skellig is pure magic; an image, a deeply haunting feeling, that carries a truth that predates words. I think it took courage to write a book like this and to leave so many questions unanswered. David Almond seems to have been sure that even if we didn’t “get it” intellectually, we would still be able to understand it on an emotional level. I really love that.

Even if you don’t normally pick up children’s books – don’t miss Skellig.

Here’s a quote that will give you an idea of the writing:

“Let me sleep,” squeaked Skellig. “Let me go home.”

He lay facedown and his wings continued to quiver into shape above him. We drew the blankets up beneath them, felt his feathers against the skin on the backs of our hands. Soon Skellig’s breathing settled and he slept. Whisper rested against him, purring.

We stare at each other. My hand trembled as I reached out toward Skellig’s wings. I touched them with my fingertips. I rested my palms on them. I felt the feathers, and beneath them the bones and sinews and muscles that supported them. I felt the crackle of Skellig’s breathing.

I tiptoed to the shutters and stared out through the narrow chinks.

“What you doing?” she whispered.

“Making sure the world’s still really there,” I said.