JULY 24:

  • Happy birthday Charlotte Pomerantz (The Piggy in the Puddle) and Sherry Garland (The Lotus Seed, Shadow of the Dragon).
  • It’s the birth date of Esther Averill (1902-1992), The Fire Cat.
  • It’s also the birth date of aviator Amelia Earhart (1897-1939). Hence, is it Amelia Earhart Day. Read Amelia and Eleanor Go For a Ride by Pam Muñoz Ryan, illustrated by Brian Selznick.
  • Happy birthday to Detroit (1701), founded in what would eventually become the state of Michigan. Read Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac: French Settlements in Detroit and Louisiana by Anders Kundsen and These Hands by Margaret H. Mason, illustrated by Floyd Cooper.
  • It’s Tell an Old Joke Day. Read Old Turtles 90 Knock-Knocks, Jokes, and Riddles by Leonard Kessler.

July has been designated Make a Difference in the Life of a Child month. The right book for the right child at the right time always has and always will change lives. The book of the day is one that can be very powerful when it gets in a child’s hands at the right moment. However, David Almond’s Skellig is one that got away from me as a publisher. I first saw the manuscript when I was working at Houghton Mifflin, and we had only a few days to decide if we wanted to place a bid to publish the book as it was being auctioned. Normally, I avoided auctions like the plague, but I thought David Almond’s Skellig one of the most brilliant manuscripts I had ever read. We placed a bid but Delacorte won the auction—they published the book well and have just given it an intriguing new paperback cover.

Ideal for ten- to fourteen-year-olds, Skellig tells the story of ten-year-old Michael, who is moving with his family into a new house in England. There’s a baby, as yet unnamed, in the family, but she has been in and out of the hospital, hanging tentatively on to life. So besides the normal moving worries, Michael must deal with a loving but preoccupied mother and father who have to focus on taking care of a sick infant.

In the new house’s dilapidated, collapsing garage, Michael stumbles upon an old man, half dead, who the boy secretly begins to feed and care for. Eventually he tells his new neighborhood friend, Mina; she is the only person he trusts with his secret. For Skellig, as the man calls himself, may not be a mortal man at all. At one point, Mina and Michael discover that he has wings—and in a magical scene he takes them flying. Owls also feed Skellig, although he seems to prefer Michael’s Chinese takeout. He mumbles and rants, but he also makes sense at the same time.

The book alternates between the almost dreamlike sequences where Michael deals with Skellig, and the realistic chapters focusing on his school and the baby’s declining health. During the day-to-day events, Mina tells Michael about William Blake. Skellig is just the kind of creature Blake would invent.

Finally, the two parts of the story intertwine, when Michael’s mother dreams of Skellig visiting the baby in the hospital. The baby begins to mend—and Skellig bids farewell to his friends who have brought him back to life.

A book of magical realism, Skellig does not read like any other novel written for children. It explores the healing power of love and a sense of spiritual wonder. Although it can be enjoyed for independent reading, it begs for a book discussion group so that everyone can talk about their own understanding of its contents. My sense of the book changes each time I read it. However the reader experiences Skellig, it remains one of those haunting, amazing novels for children that can be appreciated as much by the adults who find it.

Here’s a passage from Skellig:

“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.


Originally posted July 24, 2011. Updated for .

Tags: Imagination, Magic, Religion/Spirituality, Science
Instructional materials from TeachingBooks.net for Skellig
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  1. Bigfoot says:

    David Almond is one of my favorite writers. I’m looking forward to this fall’s release of MY NAME IS MINA. With another author, I might be nervous about a prequel to one of my favorite books, but in this case I trust that it’s going to be as good as SKELLIG. Bring on October!

  2. Sharon says:

    I have never understood this book. Perhaps I read it at the wrong time in my life. I certainly appreciate this essay, as it helps lift the fog. Every book has its reader as the saying goes. I appreciate that you brought it to the attention of your viewership. Maybe Skellig will find a new audience with the current paperback release.

  3. Vicki Solomon says:

    Thank you for writing about this most magical, beautiful book. I have rarely found a child to recommend it to, but I will look even harder for one now.

  4. Anita says:

    Sharon: Not all books are for all readers — Skellig takes one willing to move into the realm of the spirit or magic. But I often find that books that have escaped me at one moment in my life suddenly work in another. For years I could not get into Tolkien’s The Hobbit. This was particularly problematic because I worked for his publisher. Then, one day when I didn’t work there, I picked up the book and got lost in the story — and didn’t put Tolkien down until I had finished Lord of the Rings. I became a willing reader for the story he needed to tell.

  5. G.Perry says:

    This reading a book at a different time thing happens to me as well.

    A notable example was Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel. My first attempt at that book had me asking “What on earth IS this man trying to say?”

    Well, I went back to it a few weeks later and one of the most beautiful and profoundly moving books of my life unfolded in my reading soul. “A stone, a leaf, an unfound door.”

    On windy, leaf blown days, passages from Wolfe’s work will call my name, for life. (Maxwell Perkins knew what he was doing.)

  6. Anita says:

    Gordon: I am sure you are right about Look Homeward Angel. But that is one that makes me balk. I just keep thinking he needs a good line editor. So, obviously, I have not picked it up in the right moment.

  7. G.Perry says:

    It helped enormously when I read Max Perkins: Editior of Genius by A. Scott Berg. Wolfe wrote tens of thousands of pages. Boxes, and boxes and boxes, and Perkins most difficult challenge was to get control of Wolfe’s lunitic unceasing output,, and make a coherent story of it all. No wonder I felt lost.

    Also, as far as reading children’s books are concerned, I think I’m unusual in the sense that I went back and constructed a place that didn’t exist in my childhood mind. I came to children’s books for the most part as an adult. So I think I rode into town on the reading, horse backwards. I also think perhaps that has helped in some way, but occasionally, I come across one of these reviews, and I’m like “Huh! What?” But not too often…

  8. Anita says:

    Gordon: I read the Berg book years ago and loved it. Also the letters of Max Perkins are quite wonderful.

  9. Amit Eshet says:

    This book is really magically written. The story drives me to the oher world in some places. Thanks a lot for writing this mesmorizing blog.

  10. Helen Frost says:

    love this book, and love what you say about it, Anita.

  11. This book is one that pulls the reader in immediately. I appreciate the insights and page turning style.

  12. G. Perry says:

    At long last, I got this read. I had seen only a portion of the film which didn’t help my understanding of the book.

    Now that I’ve read it, I have to say it is a shockingly beautiful book. I am still thunderstruck by the whole thing.

    The multiple core idea of this book was such a surprise to me.

    And another thing. I’m fairly science literate, and yet the author left me absolutely fantasizing about it’s possibility.

    Great book. I’ll buy it.

  13. Anita says:

    Gordon — every time I pick this up, I am amazed by what he has done in the book. The beauty of it takes my breath away.

  14. Jean Brodahl says:

    Oh, Anita…I gasped when I saw this. How did I miss this one from you in 2011? I was a busy elementary librarian when I found this book, but will never forget its impact. For me, when I can see scenes from a book in my head, it’s great, but when it can make me FEEL the emotion it brought me all these years later…that makes it important, special, and unforgettable. This book is a confirmation that there is something out there that we cannot explain…it’s how I define faith and spirituality. It’s the same feeling I get when I see beautiful birds in flight, knowing this is my Mama watching over me and touching me with her love. I will recommend this to hubby who has become an avid reader in his retirement, I know he will love it. Thank you, Anita, for the reminder of this haunting, beautiful book.

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