Do you ever have the urge to write an author and transcriptionally hug and kiss them because of your profound gratitude for their having been born and having written this one particular book? I usually hug the book instead. And I’ve been hugging My Name is Mina the past few days. I should really write those living authors. I should write to David Almond.
I’d heard of My Name is Mina in passing. I think it was in a manner of whispers from the “Lucky Day” shelf in Juvenile Fiction at the Library. I picked it up the other day. I’m familiar with David Almond, should be good. On the cover in small print: “One of the best novels of the last decade.” -Nick Hornby. I flipped open the cover and read:
Mina loves the night. While everyone else is in a deep slumber, she gazes out the window, witness to the moon’s silvery light. In the stillness, she can even hear her own heart beating. This is when Mina feels that anything is possible, that her imagination is set free.
A blank notebook lies on the table. It has been there for what seems like forever. Mina has proclaimed in the past that she will use it as a journal, and one night, at last, she begins to do just that. As she writes, Mina makes discoveries both trivial and profound about herself and her world, her thoughts and her dreams.
Award-winning author David Almond re-introduces readers to the perceptive, sensitive Mina before the events of Skellig in this lyrical and fantastical work. My Name Is Mina is not only a pleasure to read, it is an intimate and enlightening look at a character whose open mind and heart have much to teach us about life, love, and the mysteries that surround us. –inside jacket copy
I flipped pages and noted the unusual form. I balanced it on top of my seven volumes of Pluto. I was taking this book home to Natalya, whom instantly came to mind. She and Mina would be friends, minus the tree part. Well, maybe Mina could have talked her into climbing one. To be perfectly candid, I would linger in hopes of an invitation myself.
Then what shall I write? I can’t just write that this happened then this happened then this happened to boring infinitum. I’ll let my journal grow just like the mind does, just like a tree or a beast does, just like life does. Why should a book tell a tale in a dull straight line?
Words should wander and meander. They should fly like owls and flicker like bats and slip like cats. They should murmur and scream and dance and sing.
Sometimes there should be no words at all.
Just clean white space.
Some pages will be like a sky with a single bird in it. some will be like a sky with a swirling swarm of starlings in it. My sentences will be a clutch, a collection, a pattern, a swarm, a shoal, a mosaic. They will be a circus, a menagerie, a tree, a nest. Because my mind is not in order. My mind is not straight lines. My mind is a clutter and a mess. It is my mind, but it is also very like other minds. And like all minds, like every mind that there has ever been and every mind that there will ever be, it is a place of wonder. (11-12, though technically 3-4)
I could stop here, couldn’t I. But I won’t.
I had hopes with the first entry title page: Moonlight, Wonder, Flies & Nonsense. I found poetry upon the first page of written words, and I quickly found love within a short succession of pages; 4 and 5 and 6 pages in, pages 12-14. “I was told by my teacher Mrs. Scullery that I should not write anything until I had planned what I would write. What nonsense! […] I did want to be what they called a good girl, so I did try.” There are people who say they want to be a Writer, and there are people who say that they are. And I’m not mistaking Published Author for Writer and neither should you. My Name is Mina is for Writers, for Artists, Anyone, and for Birdwatchers.
I think people will want to give this book to youth they find “special.” And it is true that Mina is gifted and unusual (I think mostly due to her courageousness). You get that her mother is a profound influence, a mentor and guide; she herself is a Creative thinker. If for no other reason buy this for the sake of its portrayal of a loving, truly nurturing mother. “Raise your child in the way they should go,” comes to mind. Anyway, I think people should want to give this book to any young person. It is true that many people like Mina feel alone in their wondering and meandering and musing about themselves and the world; but the book does not impart a sense of “specialness” upon Mina outside of realizing a very rich character. It would assume every young person has (at the very most) an inner life, a distinction, and a loneliness. My evidence?
Now, I’m not going to say the book assumes absolute familiarity, Mina’s mind would be her own (11), but she will not be wholly unfamiliar on some intimate level (at least I desperately hope not). Better, Mina would challenge the reader to nurture their creativity, their wondering minds. If, like Mina, you’re not going to have it nurtured in a school setting or special programs, or unlike her, at home, be determined and a bit desperate and brave and find yourself an empty journal to meander your way through.
My Name is Mina has these fantastic “Extraordinary Activities” throughout. They are connected to her stories and contemplations where they are exampled, but they are meant to engage the reader, the creative. “Go to the loo. Flush your pee away. Consider where it will go to and what it will become” (124). “(Joyous Version) Write a page of words for joy. [or] (Sad Version) Write a page of words for sadness” (133). N did this one, pausing her reading to do so: “Write a poem that repeats a word and repeats a word and repeats a word and repeats a word until it almost loses its meaning. (It can be useful to choose a word that you don’t like, or that scares or disturbs you)” (97). N’s present essay project on present, future, past tenses: yep, the concrete poem Mina wrote on page 89 and following.
Mina is funny and serious and vulnerable and strong and restless and still and shy and friendly and outrageous and poignant and… I found her a beautiful character with which to become acquainted. Rather importantly, she is not charmingly quirky, or a cute puppy to indulge and smile over. She is deadly ridiculous.
If you’ve read David Almonds 1998 debut novel and awards-winning Skellig, you’ve met Mina. While you needn’t have read Skellig to enjoy My Name is Mina, My Name is Mina is cited as a prequel. You meet Mina from before Michael (in Skellig) moves onto her street. She sees him, occasionally observes, but there is a time before she finally introduces herself to him. Those familiar with Skellig will note references, people, and remember Mina. Those unfamiliar will not feel cheated, nor will they encounter any frustrating sense of inevitability like stories often written with another story in mind. You know those that are written to offer backstory. Mina isn’t a backstory. She is her own story.
When Mina writes that “the journal will grow just like the mind does” the book does take on this characteristic. She doesn’t date entries, but uses creative (summarative) titles. She’ll allude to an ending, and then move back and forth before she reaches it. “Afterwards, Mina tried to think of ways to tell the tale. Then she thought that maybe it’d be best to write it down, which is what she did” (58). She intentionally avoids stories until she feels ready to share them, still distancing herself from their discomfort; she’ll switch from 1st- to 3rd-person for similar reasons. “Extraordinary Activity: (third-person version) Write a story about yourself as if you’re writing about somebody else. (first-person version) Write a story about somebody else as if you’re writing about yourself” (59). Some of the world about her is captured obliquely, what we learn of her mother’s is created thus. The book is a journal of Mina’s keeping after all, her preoccupations, her confessions, her stories, her own dramatic effects. She yells, she cries, she records poems and blank pages. Mina’s mind may be a mess, as she puts it, but the book is by no means jumbled into indecipherability. It doesn’t even feel unnatural. It doesn’t even exhaust the reader with cleverness–maybe because its less “clever” and more normal. Mina resists conforming, and I’m glad for it.
My Name is Mina culminates into an ending that isn’t remotely forced, or even inevitable for that matter. We have points we are alerted to look for, progressions we would see through, and then it slips into another story: Skellig. I was compelled to turn pages by my desire to spend time with Mina and the world she inhabits in her mind’s eye; to explore ideas of creation and death and life and belonging and cages and nonsense and story; to have fun and be brave and engage in healthy doses of nonsense and sorrow and long walks.
Thank you David Almond for your gift to the world, to my daughter, and to me. Thank you for introducing us to Mina.
recommendation…ages 10&up, human (or beast), lovers of humor, occasional irreverence, poetry you can understand, adventure, birds, nonsense, absolute sense… For those who’ve experienced a loss, a found, an inquisitive mind, an understanding adult, an equally strange friend, the principal’s office…
Bart’s Bookshelf did a really excellent (and short) review, which I just found. Check it out.
My Name is Mina by David Almond
Delacorte Press, 2010
hardcover, 300 pages.