This is the second love letter in the series we’re doing about books that shaped us, as individuals and as writers. Last month, I wrote about a book that formed me as a person. This month, it’s the book that inspired me to write middle grade. I discovered Skellig, by David Almond, as an adult. I fell into it by accident, intrigued by its strange title and lovely cover. I finished it in two days, deciding almost immediately that it was the perfect book.
Skellig tells the story of a boy named Michael who moves into a new house and discovers, in the broken-down barn there, a grumpy, old, arthritic man who maybe has wings, is maybe an angel. Michael also has a baby sister who was born too early, and may not survive. “Sometimes I think she’s never quite left Heaven and never quite made it all the way here to Earth,” Michael’s mother says. “Maybe that’s why she has such trouble staying here.”
It was Skellig that taught me what contemporary fantasy can do in middle grade. It can use magic to illuminate and elucidate hard truths—the things that children know, intuitively, but do not have the language to express. I love middle grade because it is the cusp where magic is still not entirely impossible, but the harder aspects of reality are visible, as well. Middle grade contemporary fantasy mines this fleeting moment in life.
The story is gorgeously spare. I cannot tell you what any of the characters look like, except Skellig, vaguely. I am unsure where it takes place, though the use of “bloody” and “blinking” as curses tells me somewhere in Great Britain. The time period could be anything over about a century, post-automobile and pre-cell phone. There are no literary acrobats, no lingering descriptions or laugh lines. It is as hard to get my hands around as a dream. But, like a dream, the feeling it evokes lingers deep within.
This is the book that inspired me to write. In the comments, if you like, I would love to hear your inspirations.
“What are you?” I whispered.
He shrugged again.
“Something,” he said. “Something like you, something like a beast, something like a bird, something like an angel.” He laughed. “Something like that.”
Kate Hillyer continues to search for magic in the everyday. She writes middle grade stories about girls strong enough to save the things they love. You can find her at www.katehillyer.com and on Twitter as @SuperKate. She blogs here and at From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle Grade Authors, and also has her own book blog at www.kidbooklist.com.