David Almond is a British author of Children’s books, perhaps best known for Skellig, his first children’s novel, published in 1998. Skellig was the first children’s book I read that included a deliberately homeschooled character. Her name was Mina. Well, some 12 years later Almond has returned to the world he created in Skellig and offered us a prequel titled My Name Is Mina. Mina is written as the journal of the titular character, and it tells in great detail the story of why and how she came to be homeschooled.
Both books are set in Newcastle, in England. Mina, we come to learn, is an eccentric and very creative child, which is the source of much of her friction with her schoolteacher and classmates, many of whom find her strange. Mina is the narrator throughout, so we get only her account of these school experiences. But Almond also allows us to intuit from some of Mina’s self disclosures the deeper source of her discontent with school: the difficulty she’s having dealing with the death of her father. Mina is actually lonely and scared, though she has a hard time saying as much.
Anyway, all of this leads to conflict with her school. After a particularly nasty situation brought on by the fact that Mina decided to write a lot of nonsense words down as her essay for a government test being used to evaluate the school, Mina’s mother is called in and the pair decide together to pull Mina from school.
This decision leads to a home visit from two school officials. Mina narrates,
They said that legally, Mum was of course well within her rights to make this decision. Did we understand the implications, though? Educating me at home would be quite a drain on Mum’s energy and time. We would not have the facilities of school. I would not have the benefit of company of children of my own age. Mum said we realized those things. We were quite prepared for them. She said we were quite happy about them. And our plan for home education might not last forever. “Though it might,” I said quickly. (p.206)
Mina’s homeschooling comes very close to what is often called “unschooling.” Mina spends a lot of time up in her favorite tree writing and thinking. After one day’s adventures Mina records this conversation with her mother:
“Anyway, what have you been up to?”
“Talking to an old lady with bad bones, dancing for Persephone, being in somebody else’s dream, thinking about pee and sweat and spit, reading Where the Wild Things Are and writing a thousand words for joy.”
[Mum] laughed again. “Sounds like a fine day’s work to me.” (p. 132)
Much of Mina’s education takes place over meals. Here’s one engaging example:
As we ate, Mum talked about birds and souls. She said that some people believe the soul never dies, but it moves from one body to another, even to the bodies of animals. This is called the transmigration of souls. It’s a kind of rebirth, or reincarnation. She talked about Plato and Hinduism and Buddhism. She said that some people believe that if you have not lived well you will be reborn as an insect, or even as a vegetable…. Then we looked at books about India and Sri Lanka, and read about Hinduism and Buddhism. We looked at photographs of the Himalayas, and I painted a picture of snow-capped mountains while Mum read to me about Tibet, the country beyond India high up in the clouds. In Tibet, people believe that the soul breaks free of the body at night, and has journeys that are remembered as dreams. This is known as astral traveling. Astral traveling! Imagine flying through the night with bats and the owls, looking down at the house, the street, the city, the world! (pp. 78-81)
As the book progresses we find that Mina sometimes misses school. She even admits near the end that her earlier accounts of the horrors of her school and the cruelties of her teachers might have been a little overblown. “But when you’re writing stories, sometimes you just have to do these things. You have to EXAGGERATE, otherwise there wouldn’t be any DRAMA. It’s just what writers DO!! OK?” (p. 261)
At the very end of the book we find Mina finally working up the courage to introduce herself to the new boy that has just moved into the beat up old house down the street. The boy’s family has just had a new baby, and evidently there’s been a problem, as Mina has just seen a doctor and several nurses visit the house. Readers of Skellig know the rest…
Now for my appraisal. As noted, I loved Skellig. But I didn’t love My Name is Mina. Here’s why. Keefer and Tyson’s recent revision of Charlotte Huck’s Children’s Literature: A Brief Guide explains that great children’s literature needs to have at least four characteristics: writing from a child’s perspective, a thick and compelling plot, a complex theme requiring the reader to think and interpret, and characters that kids can relate to. Almond’s book has three of the four. What it lacks is a good plot. His decision to write this book as a memoir related by his central character made it very difficult for him to construct a consistent story. The book reads much like an actual memoir written by a precocious and loquacious pre-teen girl would probably be. Almond captures Mina’s voice and her complex emotional states very well, and in that way the book is a wonderful character study. But nothing much really happens, and many, many pages consist of quirky oddities that don’t really add up to anything. Occasionally Mina will tell a story about something that happened to her, the most notable example being an adventure down in the ruins of a coal mine. In these moments the book becomes interesting. But these moments are few and don’t result in a coherent narrative. And without a good story even the best writing and the most engaging characters aren’t going to keep an audience of children interested….
Or so I thought. A week after writing what you just read I brought the book home from my office and my 8 year-old pounced. She had read Skellig and asked me if this was the same Mina that was in that book. I said yes. The rest of the day she spent reading Mina. I asked her after she finished if she liked it and she said yes. “But it didn’t really have a plot. You liked it anyway?” I asked. “I love books with no plot!” she responded, reminding me of how much she had enjoyed the movie Alamar, which we had seen a few weeks before and which likewise has no plot to speak of. All of which is to say that maybe kids will be more interested in this book than I was!