Reviewed: April 16, 2004
By: David Almond
Publisher: Dell Yearling
182 pages, $6.99

Skellig is an intriguing young adult book that works on several levels. It tells the story of 10 year old Michael, who is suffering from a number of problems as the story opens. First, and most serious, he has a sick little sister, so sick that she has not yet been given a name. His parents are preoccupied with her health. It’s not that he’s being ignored, but he can certainly feel the difference. The focus of the family, even his own focus, is on the sick child, and the constant presence of a physician - Michael thinks of him as Dr. Death - is unsettling.

To add to that is the fact that they’ve just moved to a new home, well, new to them, but far from new. It’s definitely a fixer-upper of a place, with a lot of work to be done. We’re not told why the family moved, but the relocation has taken Michael out of his usual neighbourhood, away from the close contact of his friends, and blessed him with a long daily bus ride to get to his school.

In the decaying garage next to the main house, Michael (who isn’t supposed to be in there at all) finds Skellig, who “was filthy and pale and dried out and I thought he was dead.” At first he won’t speak, except to repeat the numbers of certain items from a Chinese food takeout menu. It seems he was on the property during the time of the previous owner, who had been dead for a week before they found him.

The odd name means “rock” in Gaelic, but is perhaps apt since these rocks off the coast of Ireland (one of which is named Skellig Michael, by the way) are home to many species of birds. Michael’s Skellig is birdlike in a number of ways: his appetite, the weight of his bones and, oh yes, his wings.

Is Skellig an angel, trapped on earth by his Arthur (that would be Arthur Itis, as he puts it) or is he some sort of evolutionary offshoot that no one has ever seen? The story’s fascination with the works of William Blake, introduced into Michael’s life by the home-schooled girl  Mina, who lives next door and comes to share his secret, would tend to support the angel theory. So would the mystical experiences they have as their combination of food, drink, medicine, and general TLC slowly bring their strange and secret friend back to improved health.

That’s not all that Michael has to deal with, though. When his old friends begin making their way to his new neighbourhood, he has to come to the realization that some people just don’t grow along with you, even though others do. Inspired by Mina and her mother, Michael has some new interests in life and at least one of his friends can’t accept these changes. Evolving relationships are often difficult and Michael certainly feels this pain as well.

This is not a long or difficult book, but it is a good one, with a compelling combination of the everyday and the fantastic. These British authors seem to have a knack for peeking around the corners of the world and finding the unusual in mundane places.

I owe this one to a grade 10 student, who wrote me such an interesting report on it that I just had to read it for myself. Thank you, Katie.