Michael was looking forward to moving into a new house. But now his baby sister is ill, his parents are frantic, and Doctor Death has come to call. Michael feels helpless. Then he steps into the crumbling garage and encounters a strange being who changes his world forever.
I found him in the garage on a Sunday afternoon. It was the day after we moved into Falconer Road. The winter was ending. Mum had said we'd be moving just in time for the spring. Nobody else was there. Just me. The others were inside the house with Dr. Death, worrying about the baby.
He was lying there in the darkness behind the tea chests, in the dust and dirt. It was as if he'd been there forever. He was filthy and pale and dried out and I thought he was dead. I couldn't have been more wrong. I'd soon begin to see the truth about him, that there'd never been another creature like him in the world.
We called it the garage because that's what the real estate agent, Mr. Stone, called it. It was more like a demolition site or a rubbish dump or like one of those ancient warehouses they keep pulling down at the wharf. Stone led us down the garden, tugged the door open, and shined his little flashlight into the gloom. We shoved our heads in at the doorway with him.
"You have to see it with your mind's eye," he said. "See it cleaned, with new doors and the roof repaired. See it as a wonderful two-car garage."
He looked at me with a stupid grin on his face.
"Or something for you, lad-a hideaway for you and your pals. What about that, eh?"
I looked away. I didn't want anything to do with him. All the way round the house it had been the same. Just see it in your mind's eye. Just imagine what could be done. All the way round I kept thinking of the old man, Ernie Myers, that had lived here on his own for years. He'd been dead nearly a week before they found him under the table in the kitchen. That's what I saw when Stone told us about seeing with the mind's eye. He even said it when we got to the dining room and there was an old cracked toilet sitting there in the comer behind a plywood screen. I just wanted him to shut up, but he whispered that toward the end Ernie couldn't manage the stairs. His bed was brought in here and a toilet was put in so everything was easy for him. Stone looked at me like he didn't think I should know about such things. I wanted to get out, to get back to our old house again, but Mum and Dad took it all in. They went on like it was going to be some big adventure. They bought the house. They started cleaning it and scrubbing it and painting it. Then the baby came too early. And here we were.
I NEARLY GOT INTO THE GARAGE that Sunday morning. I took my own flashlight and shined it in. The outside doors to the back lane must have fallen off years ago and there were dozens of massive planks nailed across the entrance. The timbers holding the roof were rotten and the roof was sagging in. The bits of the floor you could see between the rubbish were full of cracks and holes. The people that took the rubbish out of the house were supposed to take it out of the garage as well, but they took one look at the place and said they wouldn't go in it even for extra money. There were old chests of drawers and broken washbasins and bags of cement, ancient doors leaning against the walls, deck chairs with the cloth seats rotted away. Great rolls of rope and cable hung from nails. Heaps of water pipes and great boxes of rusty nails were scattered on the floor. Everything was covered in dust and spiders' webs. There was mortar that had fallen from the walls. 'There was a little window in one of the walls but it was filthy and there were rolls of cracked linoleum standing in front of it. The place stank of rot and dust. Even the bricks were crumbling like they couldn't bear the weight anymore. It was like the whole thing was sick of itself and would collapse in a heap and have to get bulldozed away.
I heard something scratching in one of the corners, and something scuttling about; then it all stopped and it was just dead quiet in there.
I stood daring myself to go in.
I was just going to slip inside when I heard Mum shouting at me
"Michael! What you doing?"
She was at the back door.
"Didn't we tell you to wait till we're sure it's
I stepped back and looked at her.
"Well, didn't we?" she shouted.
"Yes," I said.
"So keep out! All right?"
I shoved the door and it lurched half shut on its
"All right?" she yelled.
',All right,” said. "Yes. All right. All right."
"Do you not think we've got more to worry about than stupid you getting crushed in a stupid garage?
"You just keep out, then! Right?"
"Right. Right, right, right.
Then I went back into the wilderness we called garden and she went back to the stupid baby.
Excerpted from Skellig by David Almond. Copyright © 2001 by David Almond. Excerpted by permission of Laurel Leaf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
About David Almond
“Writing can be difficult, but sometimes it really does feel like a kind of magic. I think that stories are living things—among the most important things in the world.”—David Almond
David Almond is the winner of the 2001 Michael L. Printz Award for Kit’s Wilderness, which has also been named best book of the year by School Library Journal, Booklist, and Publishers Weekly. His first book for young readers, Skellig, is a Printz Honor winner.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Miraculous beings living in a miraculous world . . .
Maybe it comes from my religious upbringing (I grew up in a big Catholic family): I do feel that we are miraculous beings living in a miraculous world. Sometimes the explanations we’re given—and the possibilities we’re offered—are just too restricted and mechanistic. Stories offer us a place to explore (as writers and readers) what it is to be fully human. I do think that young people are interested in the major questions—Who are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going? Is there a God?—and they’re willing to contemplate all kinds of possibilities. They haven’t yet become tired by such questions.
Brutality has to be allowed its place . . .
Ten minutes of TV news is enough to convince anybody that the world is a pretty brutal place. We aren’t yet perfect people living in a perfect world—and we never will be—so brutality has to be allowed its place. But the world also contains great tenderness, joy, hope, etc. I suppose that in my books I explore a world and people that are made up of opposites: good and evil, light and darkness, the beautiful and the ugly. And I hope that in the end, goodness, light, and beauty will have some kind of upper hand.
Stories as a whole form a kind of community . . .
The stories in Counting Stars don’t have a straightforward chronological progression, but there are many links between the different stories. They form a kind of mosaic. Themes hinted at in one story are developed in another. Characters are seen in different situations/settings. I like to think that the stories as a whole form a kind of community or family. It’s often said that there’s a big difference between writing short stories and novels, but I’m not so sure. I think of my novels as a series of scenes/chapters, each of which I write with the same kind of attention I’d give to a short story.
A readership of four . . .
When I began to write Counting Stars, I wanted to write about my sisters and brother, and to use their real names, so I needed their permission. I worried that they wouldn’t be happy about the book. So I invited them all to my house for dinner, and afterwards I told them my plans, and I nervously read one of the first stories, “The Fusilier.” If they had said no to using their real names, Counting Stars would have been a very different book—and maybe wouldn’t have been written at all. But they said yes! Over the next couple of years, after I’d written each story, I sent copies to my brother and three sisters, so that they could see how things were developing. So, in a sense, the book was written for a readership of four people.
Staring out of the window . . .
I write at home, in a little office overlooking the back garden. I scribble in an artist’s sketchbook and type onto an AppleMac computer. I work all day—though some of that time will involve staring out of the window and eating apples. But I also travel quite a lot, so I’m used to writing on trains, in hotels, etc.
I used to wonder if I'd ever be able to write a novel properly . . .
For many years, I wrote nothing but short stories, and I used to wonder if I’d ever be able to write a novel properly. I wrote the stories in Counting Stars before I wrote Skellig, my first children’s novel. I wrote them over a two-year period. As I wrote them, I found myself exploring childhood experience from a child’s point of view. I rediscovered the powerful imaginative and emotional nature of childhood. Really, writing these stories changed me into a writer for children/young adults.
Messing about with paper clips . . .
I always wanted to be a writer. I wrote little books and stories as a boy, and wanted to see my books on the shelves of our little local library right next to my favorite books: King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table, The Day of the Triffids, and The Adventures of Turkey. But as for writing, I simply like it all—right from creating new stories to messing about with paper clips. The best piece of writing advice I’ve ever received: Don't give up.
It’s often children who read the books with the most insight . . .
I think that children can be much more perceptive, creative, and intelligent than we give them credit for. I see this in the many letters I get from my readers and in the things that they say when I meet them. Some adults assume that children will never “get” the more complex aspects of my books, but in fact it’s often children who read the books with the most insight.
—A Michael L. Printz Honor Book
—An ALA Notable Book
—A New York Times Best Book
“A lovingly done, thought-provoking novel.”—Starred, School Library Journal
“An amazing work. Some of the writing takes one’s breath away.”—Starred, Booklist
“Almond makes a triumphant debut in the field of children’s literature with prose that is at once eerie, magical, and poignant.”—Starred, Publishers Weekly
—A Michael L. Printz Award Winner
—An ALA Notable Book
—A Publishers Weekly Best Book
“A highly satisfying literary experience.”—Starred, School Library Journal
“Almond has set an enormous task for himself . . . but he succeeds beautifully.”—Starred, Booklist
“An awe-inspiring, multilayered novel from a master imagist.”—School Library Journal, Starred
About the Book
Note from the Author
I grew up in a big family in a small, steep town overlooking the River Tyne, in England.
It was a place of ancient coal mines, dark terraced streets, strange shops, new real estate development, and wild heather hills. Our lives were filled with mysterious and unexpected events, and the place and its people have given me many of my stories. I always wanted to be a writer, though I told very few people until I was "grown-up." Writing can be difficult, but sometimes it really does feel like a kind of magic.
I think stories are living things--among the most important things in the world
About the Guide
Michael feels lonely and isolated when his family moves to a dilapidated old house in a new neighborhood. Now his baby sister is gravely ill, and Dr. Death sends her to the hospital. Paralyzed with fear that his sister might die, Michael wanders into a rundown garage in the backyard and discovers Skellig, a filthy and pale creature lying beneath spiderwebs and dead flies. Is he a human being or a strange kind of beast? The only person Michael can confide in is his new friend, Mina. Together, they carry Skellig out into the light and Michael's world changes forever.
About the Author
David Almond grew up in a small town in England. He has been a mailman, a brush salesman, an editor, and a teacher. He won the Printz Honor and, in the U.K., the Whitbread Award and the Carnegie Medal for Skellig. David Almond lives with his family in Newcastle, England.
1. Michael is very unhappy at the beginning of the novel. Discuss how Michael's life changes after he discovers Skellig and meets Mina. Think about ways that you deal with fear and loneliness. How can you help a friend who appears unhappy?
2. Almond never gives the reader a specific description of Skellig. Based on the glimpses of Skellig found throughout the novel, what is your impression of Skellig? How might Michael describe Skellig at the end of the novel?
3. Michael brushes his hands against Skellig's back and detects what appear to be wings. When he asks his mother about shoulder blades, she answers, "They say that shoulder blades are where your wings were when you were an angel . . . where your wings will grow again one day." What does this statement reveal about Skellig?
4. When Michael questions why Skellig eats living things and makes pellets like an owl, Mina answers, "We can't know. Sometimes we just have to accept that there are things we can't know." Why is this an important moment in the novel?
5. When Michael's soccer teammates discover his friendship with Mina, they begin teasing him. How does this affect Michael's relationship with them? Why do you think they make fun of Mina? How does she handle the teasing? How would you handle the situation if your classmates made fun of a special friend?
6. Discuss Michael's relationship with his mother and father. How does the baby's illness put a strain on these relationships? How is Michael's relationship with his parents different from Mina's relationship with her mother?
7. At the same time that his sister is undergoing heart surgery, Michael discovers that Skellig is gone. Mina calms Michael by quoting William Blake: "[Blake] said the soul was able to leap out of the body for a while and then leap back again. He said it could be caused by great fear or enormous pain. Sometimes it was because of too much joy. It was possible to be overwhelmed by the presence of so much beauty in the world." Why do you think Mina quoted this passage to Michael? How are fear and pain related? How are joy and beauty related? How does Skellig represent all these qualities?
8. What does the nurse mean when she describes Michael's baby sister as having a "heart of fire"? Why does Michael want to name the baby Persephone? Why is Joy an appropriate name for her? What other names might symbolize her journey and her place in the world?
9. Skellig returns for one last visit with Michael and Mina. What do you think is Skellig's purpose for entering Michael's life? How does he touch other lives? Do you think he'll ever return?
NOTE TO TEACHERS
Told in lyrical prose, Skellig
is a mystery, an adventure, and a heartfelt family story that explores life, poetry, and the healing powers of love. Michael, the endearing main character, and his friend Mina will appeal to the child in every reader, while the powerful themes raise important questions that will send readers searching for answers long after closing the book. The questions that follow are intended to guide young readers as they begin to analyze the larger psychological, sociological, and literary elements of this extraordinary novel.
ABOUT THIS BOOKDavid Almond’s Printz Honor—winning novel celebrates its 10th anniversary!
Ten-year-old Michael was looking forward to moving into a new house. But now his baby sister is ill, his parents are frantic, and Doctor Death has come to call. Michael feels helpless. Then he steps into the crumbling garage. . . . What is this thing beneath the spiders’ webs and dead flies? A human being, or a strange kind of beast never before seen? The only person Michael can confide in is his new friend, Mina. Together, they carry the creature out into the light, and Michael’s world changes forever. . . .
ABOUT THIS AUTHOR
David Almond grew up in a large family in northeastern England. He worked as a postman, a brush salesman, an editor, and a teacher but began to write seriously after he finished college. His second novel, Kit’s Wilderness,
won the Michael L. Printz Award for excellence in literature for young adults. He lives in England with his partner and their daughter.
DISCUSSION AND WRITINGQUESTIONS FOR GROUP DISCUSSION
• Michael is very unhappy at the beginning of the novel. Discuss how Michael’s life changes after he discovers Skellig and meets Mina. Think about ways that you deal with fear and loneliness. How can you help a friend who appears unhappy?
• Almond never gives the reader a specific description of Skellig. Based on the glimpses of Skellig found throughout the novel, what is your impression of Skellig? How might Michael describe Skellig at the end of the novel?
• Michael brushes his hands against Skellig’s back and detects what appear to be wings. When he asks his mother about shoulder blades, she answers, “They say that shoulder blades are where your wings were when you were an angel . . . where your wings will grow again one day.” What does this statement reveal about Skellig?
• When Michael questions why Skellig eats living things and makes pellets like an owl, Mina answers, “We can’t know. Sometimes we just have to accept that there are things we can’t know.” Why is this an important moment in the novel? • When Michael’s soccer teammates discover his friendship with Mina, they begin teasing him. How does this affect Michael’s relationship with them? Why do you think they make fun of Mina? How does she handle the teasing? How would you handle the situation if your classmates made fun of a special friend?
• Discuss Michael’s relationship with his mother and father. How does the baby’s illness put a strain on these relationships? How is Michael’s relationship with his parents different from Mina’s relationship with her mother?
• At the same time that his sister is undergoing heart surgery, Michael discovers that Skellig is gone. Mina calms Michael by quoting William Blake: “[Blake] said the soul was able to leap out of the body for a while and then leap back again. He said it could be caused by great fear or enormous pain. Sometimes it was because of too much joy. It was possible to be overwhelmed by the presence of so much beauty in the world.” Why do you think Mina quoted this passage to Michael? How are fear and pain related? How are joy and beauty related? How does Skellig represent all these qualities?
• What does the nurse mean when she describes Michael’s baby sister as having a “heart of fire”? Why does Michael want to name the baby Persephone? Why is Joy an appropriate name for her? What other names might symbolize her journey and her place in the world?
• Skellig returns for one last visit with Michael and Mina. What do you think is Skellig’s purpose for entering Michael’s life? How does he touch other lives? Do you think he’ll ever return?
* “Some of the writing takes one’s breath away, expecially the scenes in which Almond, without flinching, describes the beauty and the horror that is Skellig.”
* “A triumphant debut . . . prose that is at once eerie, magical, and poignant.”
◊ “Almond pens a powerful, atmospheric story.”
* “A lovingly done, thought-provoking novel.”
–School Library Journal
“Almond has given us a profound book. . . . Skellig is important.”
OTHER TITLES OF INTERESTAlso by David Almond
Skellig: Two Plays
Download a PDF of the Teacher's Guide