1 June 2012

Review 42: My Name is Mina by David Almond

"Mina's a rebel. She can't be controlled and she won't fit in. People say she's weird. Some says she's just crazy. But all she wants is to be free, to be happy, and to be herself. One night, as she sits in the moonlight, she picks up an empty notebook, and begins to write. And here is her journal, Mina's life in Mina's own words; her stories and dreams, experiences and thoughts, her scribblings and nonsense, poems and songs. Her vivid account of her vivid life."

I read Skellig when I was much younger and didn't really like it so when My Name as Mina was announced as being on the Carnegie shortlist this year, I wasn't particularly enthusiastic about reading the prequel to Skelling. However, I was totally unprepared for how much I loved this. Almond's writing is beautiful and Mina is a truly remarkable creation. The word I would use to sum this up is uplifting, I felt really inspired and moved reading this and I would highly recommend this. I think it is going to be a battle between this and A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness for my pick for the Carnegie win.

First Line: "My name is Mina and I love the night."

Why I read it: It is on the current Carnegie Prize shortlist.

Who I would recommend it to: Fans of quirky yet lyrical writing and you don't mind a story not driven by plot. If you don't mind precocious child narrators.

So whilst this is the prequel to Skellig, you don't need to have read Skellig to appreciate My Name is Mina. Having said that, there are lots of links to Skellig which you won't pick up on if you haven't read it. If you have read it you will know that Mina is a homeschooled, free-spirited girl who helps Michael to look after the mysterious creature he finds in his garage and helps Michael to look at the world a bit differently. My Name is Mina takes place in the time leading up to Michael's family moving in and Mina introducing herself to Michael.

There is a not a great deal of plot to cover, this book is Mina's take on her own life. She does cover incidents at school before her mother decided to home school her, her day at a pupil referral unit and other one off incidents that take place but it is largely an exploration of being young and alive. The book is presented as Mina's journal and uses lovely typography to show it as a real journal. The main font is handwriting-esque and there are pages with only a few words or boxes drawn round things etc. just as a real journal is. I loved this - it made it interesting to look at and also added to Mina as a character and made her feel even more real.

Mina is such a marvellous creation, I adored her. She is adventurous and determined to explore all that life has to offer, even when it is confusing or difficult. She wants to learn and to understand but not to be caged and judged. As someone who works in a school, you do sometimes see students like this who mainstream education struggles to provide for. Mina's school is not a great advertisement for schools and state education but many of Mina's issues with it are true. She calls school a cage and it can be if it does not have teachers (and librarians!) who are willing to let students explore their own perspectives. Mina's love of words fills me with hope.

For Mina, it all came to a head on SATS day (tests taken in Year 6 in the UK where students are given levels in English and Maths) when the students are earnestly encouraged to do their best for the school and Mina, frustrated at the specific instructions and lack of creativity, ends up writing a story full of marvellous made up words. When she is sent to the Head in disgrace, Mina asks,
            "Did William Blake do writing tasks just because somebody else told him to? And when level would he have got anyway? Would Shakespeare have been well above average? And Dickens and Chaucer and Keats and Shirley Hughes and Maurice Sendak and Michael Rosen. Did any of them do stupid silly SATS? I SUSPECT NOT!"
The novel is full of wonderful sentiments and beautifully created ideas that just uplift and inspire you and fill you with wonder. There are also heartbreaking moments such as when Mina speaks of her father who died when she was younger. When she goes down an old mining tunnel in search or Orpheus to try and get her dad back, your heart breaks for her.

My only real criticism is that is hasn't really gone down very well with many of it's intended audience. A lot of my Carnegie readers have given this very harsh criticism and some didn't finish it. They didn't understand it and they didn't like the meandering nature and lack of a plot. However, some of my more adventurous readers who have developed beyond your standard teenage fare did really like it so it's perhaps just not one for younger readers or teenagers who don't like novels without an exciting, fast paced plot.

My Name is Mina is magical and wonderful. It inspired me to work harder to nurture the students I have responsibility for and to try and make sure that they see the world to be as magical a place as Mina does, filled with endless opportunities and beauty.

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