Review - Books - At one with nature

26th November 2010 at 00:00

My Name is Mina

By David Almond

Hodder

#163;12.99

Get the facts out of the way first, as there are few of them. Mina was Michael's friend in Skellig, David Almond's multi award-winning and startlingly original novel, now made into a play and a film.

My Name is Mina is the prequel. Mina's father has died and she is being taught at home by her mother after a disastrous time at school. Her clash with the school's authorities and philosophy reaches a climax on Sats day when she writes a Joycean response to the writing task, much to the anger and exasperation of her teachers, who are, of course, anxious that she "do her best".

She then spends a day at a pupil referral unit, where everyone is very kind; even so, she and her mother decide this is not for her either. Home schooling follows, and Mina sits in her tree and watches as the house down the road is viewed and sold. The foundations for Skellig have been dug. In terms of plot, little else happens.

Little else happens because this is a novel that is primarily concerned with the internal, rather than the external, world. "Real life" events are of interest only in so much as they trigger reflection and proposition. This is a book of stories, ideas, dreams, insights and questions. Being character-driven rather than plot-driven, the book offers Mina (and the reader) the chance to explore her world and its nature in all its randomness, as well as what it means to be herself and a human being. On his website, David Almond wrote of Skellig: "For me, the most important character in the book is Mina. She just jumped into the book ready formed, with her opinions about education, her knowledge of William Blake, her interest in birds." My Name is Mina is presumably the result of his ensuing fascination with her.

As far as education is concerned, Mina's talismanic text is Blake's: "How can a bird that is born for joy, sit in a cage and sing?" On being told by the appositely nicknamed Mrs Scullery that she should not write anything without planning it first, she fumes: "Does a bird plan its song before it sings? Of course it does not. It opens its beak and it sings, so I will sing."

She delights in word play, enthuses over the loveliness of words like "paradoxical" and "nonsensical" and is very funny in her poker-faced attempt to enlighten her teacher about the mystery of tenses, concluding that "right from the beginning of time people have attempted to understand time and they have not managed yet... So the mysteries of time cannot be reduced to a worksheet about tenses."

It goes without saying that Mina is a free spirit, but her fear of confinement is more than balanced by a natural curiosity and delight in the world around her. Mina belongs to the night and is fascinated by owls; she watches closely as the blackbird chicks hatch and grow; she and her slightly whacky but very appealing mother discuss astral travelling and read classical mythology as well as practise arithmetic. When the council's representatives come to check that facilities for her home schooling are appropriate, she informs them in another very funny encounter that "as for facilities... we have a very nice tree in the front garden in which I have many thoughts. And the kitchen is a fine laboratory and art room. And who could devise a better classroom than the world?"

But My Name is Mina is not an anti-school book and David Almond is on record as saying that he thinks "most schools and most teachers are great these days", while going on to express reservations about the formality of much schooling and the pressure placed on teachers and pupils.

Instead it is a joyous celebration of what it means to be young and alive and enquiring, and to find the world we live in truly a source of awe and wonder. It is also beautifully written and imaginatively presented in a range of fonts and layouts that match Mina's thoughts and moods.

My Name is Mina will be avidly read by all the real-life Minas of either sex who inhabit the fringes of our classrooms and by all right-thinking teachers who believe that awe and wonder should be the central core of a child's education and not an optional bolt-on once the worksheets have been completed.

About the author David Almond

David Almond is an ex-primary teacher. Skellig, his first children's novel, won the Carnegie Medal, the Whitbread Children's Book of the Year and other international prizes. The Fire Eaters won a second Whitbread and a Smarties Gold Award. In 2010 he was awarded the Hans Christian Andersen Award for his contribution to children's literature.

The verdict: 1010.

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