A theme for my reading this year is to plunder the back catalogues of favoured writers. Like a bookish family tree, the aim is to start with one of my ‘must reads’ and then drill down into other books by the same author. I’m on the case with Robert Westall – The Machine Gunners is my starting point, next step is The Kingdom by the Sea and then on some of his twenty-odd other books. It’s a risk, of course – some books are better known than others for good reason – but I’m hoping it will unearth some gems.
Top of my topmost family tree, sitting majestically on its throne, is Skellig by David Almond. Where to go after reading Skellig – a stunning, near-to-perfect book – is a question to puzzle over. One could almost stop reading; we’re done, that’s it, nothing will come close. But then I read The Fire Eaters. It matched Skellig for the beauty of its prose, and had the same magic ingredients; it was both familiar and mysterious. Some of the beings in his books are like people we know, some are like visitors from the stars. Both books are very briefly reviewed here.
So, from Skellig to The Fire Eaters and then back to Skellig for inspiration – this led me to My Name is Mina. It’s a prequel of sorts, but different in style to Skellig. In many ways it had to be in order to complement rather than compete with it. It contains an intriguing mix of diary, random thoughts, digressions and more conventional narrative. These fragments, distinct nuggets of writing, could have fallen apart or felt disjointed but instead they form something remarkable. Together, they show the world from Mina’s unique perspective.
Mina is a girl who sits somewhere on a spectrum that the education profession describes as ‘special needs’. She doesn’t fit in and the system doesn’t fit round her. It all falls apart on test day at school (all teachers should read this book, if only for Almond’s brilliant, furious rant against SATs tests which invokes Blake, Chaucer, Dickens, Keats, Rosen, Hughes and Sendak). She is subsequently asked to leave. She returns home, educated freely by her mother, and retreats at times to her tree where she sits like a bird and, from this vantage point, sees a new family arrive, with a boy called Michael – a boy who in another book creeps into his garage and finds Skellig.
Above all, this is an incredibly thoughtful book, which gives voice to a complex child’s inner world. It’s why reading – and reading books such as this – is so important. The reader, seeing the world through Mina’s eyes, becomes more considerate, more empathetic. Where children like Mina are often cast as the outsider, the one struggling to fit in to other people’s norms, in this book her world becomes normal and it is mysterious and beautiful, full of wonder.
After My Name is Mina, where next?