Skellig, by David Almond
Maybe I'm just especially weakened from this hideous sickness that my Treasured Sister gave me for Christmas (Thanks, Sis! I'M SOOOOO APPRECIATIVE!), but I'd completely forgotten what a beautiful book Skellig is: by the time I reached the end, I was full-on sobbing. Not because it was remotely sad, but just because it was so, so lovely that it made me HAVE ALL SORTS OF FEELINGS.
In it, David Almond ties life and death and love and family and friendship and hope and despair and angels and dinosaurs and owls and evolution together, and he does it in a way that celebrates the interconnectedness of all things without getting all woo-woo.
It is, as Mina and Michael would say, extraordinary.
You probably already know the storyline: Michael and his family have just moved into an old fixer-upper of a house, they have lots of big plans about renovating it, about bringing the garden back to life, about knocking down the already-dangerously-decrepit shed on the property and replacing it with a garage.
They didn't count on the baby coming so early.
Or on her being so sick.
Or on the man-who-might-not-be-exactly-a-man living in the shed.
I don't even know where to start, it's so superb. Heck, if you've never read it, you ought to just stop reading this and pick it up instead—it's less than two hundred pages long. (Were YA books shorter in the '90s? Also, would we even call this a YA book now? It won a Printz Honor, but except for the British thing, I feel like it's almost more Newbery material, age-wise.)
A few things I loved about it this time around:
Death as part of life. Death surrounds everything and everyone in Skellig—Michael's sister is fighting for her life, Mina's father died, Skellig just wants to lie down and die, Michael's new house opened up because the previous owner died—and it very definitely creates stress, poses a threat, causes emotional upheaval, and everything that loss (and potential loss) can do. BUT! Almond also shows it as a thing of beauty, in that the owls that Mina and Michael adore are predators: they kill to live. And even when an owl kills a baby bird—so similar to the blackbird chicks that Mina has been studying and protecting throughout the book—she and Michael see beyond the sadness of that life lost to the bigger picture: that bird's death is, in part, an owl's life.
OH HELL, I AM SUDDENLY SO TEMPTED TO START BELLOWING THE CIRCLE OF LIFE. (It's a good thing Josh isn't home at the moment.)
Friendship. Mina and Michael's growing connection and friendship, which very well might not have happened if not for his sister's illness. Mina, as I mentioned in my post about the prequel, My Name is Mina, could so easily have been a revoltingly wise/twee/quirky character, but she's not: she reads like a real person, a precocious kid who is exceedingly prone to moments of pure obnoxiousness. And that, for me, makes her all the more likable. They're both lonely, they're both mulling over some Really Big Stuff, they happen to find each other, and they very rapidly—and believably—develop a kinship, a trust.
Also, Michael's growing disconnect—and then reconnect—with his old friends: rather than just growing out of his old friends and walking away (which probably would have been easier to write), Almond allowed them ALL to grow up a bit. It's so nicely done.
Family. Despite the razor-sharp tension in Michael's house, it's totally, completely obvious and evident that there is a whole lot of love and affection in their family. So much that Michael never questions it, never questions his place in his parents' hearts, never questions whether or not he wants his sister in his life. Which, thinking back over the family stories I've read over the last few years, suddenly seems so refreshing, so satisfying, and so... comforting.
Skellig: I like that there's no question that he's real, just that we're never quite sure if he's man or beast or angel. Or all three.
I could go on.
But really, it's 182 freaking pages long. Just read it.