Thursday, October 27, 2011: Kids' Maximum Shelf: My Name Is Mina

Random House Children's: Celebrate award-winning author David Almond!

Random House Children's: Skellig by David Almond

Random House Children's: My Name is Mina by David Almond

Random House Children's: Great books from David Almond!

Editors' Note

Maximum Shelf: My Name Is Mina

In this edition of Kids' Maximum Shelf--the monthly Shelf Awareness feature that focuses on an upcoming title that we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere--we present My Name Is Mina by David Almond (October 11, 2011), which revisits the character from Skellig. The review and interviews are by Jennifer M. Brown. Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House Children's Books, has helped support the issue.


Random House Children's: Skellig by David Almond

Books & Authors

Children's Review: My Name Is Mina

My Name Is Mina by David Almond (Delacorte Press, $15.99, 9780385740739, 304p., ages 10-up, October 11, 2011)

David Almond's books reveal the magical moments waiting to be discovered in the course of everyday human experience.

With his first book for young people, Skellig, he introduced the title character--perhaps human, perhaps angel, perhaps a mixture of the two. Young Michael discovers Skellig living in the garage of the rundown home he has recently moved into with his family. As his parents focus their attentions on his premature baby sister, whose fragile life hangs in the balance, Michael tends to Skellig. The boy soon recognizes a kindred spirit in his neighbor Mina McKee and enlists her help. Nine-year-old Mina is like no one that Michael has ever met. She's home-schooled, writes constantly in her journal, and her motto is a quote from William Blake: "How can a bird that is born for joy/ sit in a cage and sing?" She takes Skellig's presence in stride, and together they help make Skellig stronger in body and spirit.

David Almond dedicates this new book entirely to Mina, and it takes the form of a journal. She confides the events that have shaped her, the ideas she contemplates as she perches high in her tree and observes three blackbird eggs until they burst with life, and her thoughts about the closed mining tunnel that runs beneath her town and compels her like Persephone to the underground. While many of the motifs reverberate between Skellig and My Name Is Mina, each of the two novels stands entirely on its own. Taken together, they are doubly illuminating.

My Name Is Mina begins before Michael moves in across the street, into the home of the late Mr. Ernie Meyers. It begins with Mina's trouble in school because of her raw honesty and her need to tell things as they are. It begins over a conflict about Mina's writing. "I was told by my teacher Mrs. Scullery that I should not write anything until I had planned what I would write," Mina records in her journal. Mrs. Scullery gushes over Mina's writing plan. However, Mina's story veers in another direction. "The story... does not fit the plan!" Mrs. Scullery declares. "But it didn't want to, Miss," Mina answers, and thinks to herself, "My stories were like me. They couldn't be controlled and they couldn't fit in." The situation comes to a climax when Mina must write a timed essay during the SAT exams. "Did William Blake do writing tasks just because somebody else told him to?... And what about Shakespeare?... Would Shakespeare have been well above average?" So Mina writes a brilliant Edward Lear–esque page of nonsense, and Mrs. Scullery calls Mina "an utter bloody disgrace!" in front of the whole school. That's when Mrs. McKee decides that the kitchen table may be a more fitting desk for her uniquely gifted daughter.

Mina's mother encourages her daughter's passions for nature, food and language. Mina loves pomegranate ("Pomegranate! What a taste! And what a word!") and paradoxes ("Paradox! What a word! It sounds good, looks good, and the meaning's good!"). The great paradox of her life, however, is her father's death when she was too young to have clear memories of him, and the sensitivity it has given her to the beauty in the world: "The sad things in my life make the happy things seem more intense," she writes.

The inspired design of the book allows Mina's boundless enthusiasm to leap from the pages. The typeface evokes the feeling of handwriting, overlarge letters emphasize a beloved word, generous white space plays up the "squawk squawk squawk" of the three blackbird fledglings. As a homeschooled student, Mina invents "Extraordinary Activities" that she would use were she the teacher. These boldly outlined text boxes suggest equally bold exercises, such as, "Stare at the dust that dances in the light" (then goes on to explain, "Dust in houses... consists mainly of tiny fragments of human skin") and make a ring with the index finger and thumb through which to stare at the sky, both during the day and at night ("Do not worry about staring into the dark. It is an excellent thing to do"), and "write a page of words for joy" and another "for sadness." At nine, she is completely aware of the fullness of life, its moments of happiness and sorrow.

Mina may not always be understood by her teachers or her peers, but when she connects, she connects completely. She bonds with Sophie Smith, a classmate who limps, for instance, and with her history teacher, Mr. Henderson, who speaks of the town's coal-mining past and the fruits of their labors, "the stuff as black and bright as Mina McKee's hair," and he sings to his students "A Miner's Lullaby: Coorie Doon." ("Coorie doon" means "snuggle down.") Mina connects the sealed-off mines with Hades' habitat: "In her dreams, the entrance to the Underworld was there, behind the rhododendron bushes, in Heston Park." If only, she thinks, she could go in like Orpheus and bring back her father. The characters from books and poetry are alive to Mina. As her journal progresses, she also remains open to the possibility that there might be other teachers like Mr. Henderson and fewer like Mrs. Scullery, and other students like Sophie.

Her musings remind us that the imagination allows us to live life fully. At one point she observes the new family in Mr. Evans's house across the street. "The boy is sullen as always. The parents are pleased. They leave in the little blue car. I watch them leave the street and leave my page. I think of the mysterious connections between words and the world, and my pen soon moves again." This sullen boy soon becomes the reason for Mina to leave her tree and her yard and cross the street, knock on the door and introduce herself: "My name is Mina!" Mina's connection between her words and the world help her to know herself better, and that makes her brave.

David Almond has called Mina his muse, but she can be ours, too. She reminds us of life's many paradoxes, the simple and the complex, joy and sorrow, fear and courage. Most of all, her bravery in seeking her own truth inspires others to find theirs.


Random House Children's Random Acts of Reading blog

David Almond: Miraculousness in the Real World

In its citation for David Almond's 2010 Hans Christian Andersen Award, the jury noted his "unique voice as a creator of magic realism for children." He balks at the idea of trying to categorize his work--though he acknowledges the influence of writers like García Márquez, Borges and Calvino. But for him, "the primary thing about my books is the realism. They're straightforward, ordinary people in ordinary places, but inside them are extraordinary things." Almond never planned to return to Skellig or its characters. But when editor Beverly Horowitz called him to ask if he could add a little something for the 10th anniversary edition, Mina was waiting for him.

Can we back up just a bit and talk about the inspiration for Skellig? You had written primarily for adults before that.

I'd written for adults--a lot of short stories, and a novel that had been rejected by everybody. Then I wrote some stories about my own childhood, [later] published as Counting Stars. Just after that, Skellig started telling itself. It had lots of realistic bases. It's set in a house where I lived and drew on elements of my own life. Mina came into Skellig to my total surprise. She's the one who brought in [William] Blake and education and birds. Without Mina, Skellig would have been a sloppy book. She gave it a rigor and an alertness. People often say, "Who's your favorite character?" For me, it's always been Mina.

Did you find that you revisited Skellig to jumpstart Mina's story? Or was her story so strong in your mind that you didn't have to go back?

When I got to the end of her book, I needed to check the chronology of Skellig and some of the things Mina said in Skellig. In many ways, I wanted it to be separate because Mina knew nothing of Skellig [when her book takes place]. I didn't want to do lots of explanation of why Skellig was who he was. It had to be an explanation of who Mina was.

Mina is a special kid, and special kids often have a rough time at school fitting in with their peers and their teachers. But we also see how easily she connects with people who "get" her. Did you know kids like Mina?

She was a fascinating character to deal with. When she came into Skellig, I hadn't expected her to arrive. She came fully formed. She was imaginative, wacky, intelligent, very scientific on the one hand, and on the other hand very spiritual. When I wrote My Name Is Mina, I made some discoveries, like the sadness she had, and her character being shaped by the difficulties she'd had. While she seemed tough and confident, she's a very brave kind of child. I haven't known anybody like Mina, but I've known many kids who've had trouble fitting in, finding their way in the world.

Everyone wants to talk about Skellig, no matter what I come to talk about, and children say, "Mina was so wonderful and helpful to me." She was weirdly helpful to me, too. She's a creature of the imagination. Sometimes when I've had to answer questions about education and stuff, I'd find myself saying, "What would Mina say about that?"

For Mina, the coal mines are very much alive, filled with the spirits of Persephone and Hades. You grew up in a coal-mining town. Does the lore of those towns continue to shape its people? The mines factor into your books Kit's Wilderness and Heaven Eyes, too.

I think it does. It 's hard to say how it does. When Mina goes into the park, it's based on a real park. Part of the Victoria Tunnel [on which this one's based] has been reopened and people can visit. The tunnel goes underneath the park and through the city. The miners traveled it to go from pit to pit. Psychically, that tunnel is there inside people's imaginations. It will never go away, the fact that people used to go into the dark and bring out the coal. For me as a writer, it ties so nicely into the Persephone myth. I think that's why the myths are so powerful, they keep coming back and back and tell us more about ourselves, but they're also incredibly contemporary.

Tell us about "A Miner's Lullaby," which Mr. Henderson, the history teacher, sings.

I didn't know it very well at all, but when I wrote Mina I knew I needed a song that would do that job, so I went looking for it. I talked to a friend who knew old folk songs. The song is quite well known. On YouTube, there are a lot of examples of "A Miner's Lullaby." It's about a pitman cradling his daughter; it's a lovely song.

Mina often cites this quote from William Blake: "How can a bird that is born for joy/ sit in a cage and sing?" It's in Skellig, too. You create layers of meaning behind this phrase that reverberate within this book and also in Skellig.

That was one of the things that had to find its way into this book. In Skellig, Mina says she has the Blake quote pinned to the wall. It's such a great thing--for Skellig and Mina--because of the bird imagery, and it says so much about education, growth and song. When you're writing, sometimes things come like gifts. Those two lines from Blake stand for the whole book. And he wrote them 100 years ago.

In your books, you grapple with the paradoxes of being human, the tension between creation and destruction, and through Mina, conformity and nonconformity. Her situation suggests that we need society, but only the society of those whose company we desire and who desire ours.

Mina doesn't fit in, and she expresses something very important about education. While everyone believes in education, schools aren't the perfect way to learn things. The world's more mysterious than we try to reduce it to. She's a worldly girl. She's attached to objects and people, but she also sees the miraculousness of the world, like birds and language.

You can plan a story to death, but it kills it off. If you begin to write something interesting, it takes on its own life. It grows like a living thing. Mina knows that. When everyone has to sit down and write an essay on the same subject in the same number of minutes, she thinks, "Would William Blake have subjected himself to this? Shakespeare?" A page of nonsense might be their response--which was lovely to write. She's writing something well, inside the strictures of this test. That was an act of courage as well. The nature of creativity and the nature of schooling will always be at odds with each other, they're bound to be.

Is it true that you initially resisted the idea of writing something for the 10th anniversary edition of Skellig?

When Beverly Horowitz said, "How about doing something a little extra for the 10th anniversary?" I thought, "Oh no!" Then I thought, "Aha! I'll do a few pages of Mina's notebook." As soon as I put down the first notes, it was obvious there was a whole book waiting to be written. Mina is obviously drawn from something in my mind and the way I write. She's focused on the real world but showing the miraculousness of it, and though terrible things happen to us, we can transcend them through joyful means.

photo: Sara Jane Palmer

Beverly Horowitz: Almond's "Inner Quest to Understand the World"

"It's always hard to go back to someone who's completed a seemingly perfect book, right?" said Beverly Horowitz, v-p and publisher of Delacorte Press. That's what Skellig was, the perfect book. Even now, David Almond says that whatever book he goes to schools to talk about, Skellig is the one kids want to discuss. But for the 10th anniversary of the U.S. edition in 2009, Horowitz and her colleagues had a big discussion, and she left thinking, "I can't think of anything to do except to have a little more about these characters." She called him on the phone before she could stop herself and reached him right away.

"Hi David," she said.
"Lovely to hear from you," he said.
"I know this is going to sound crazy. But it's the 10th anniversary of Skellig and maybe you want to think about revisiting these characters again. What about considering what happened the day before Mina came over?"
He said, "What do you mean?"
I said, "I don't know."
"I don't work this way."
"I know. It just felt like I should call you."

Horowitz recalled that with Skellig, Almond was walking by a mail box and suddenly the idea for the novel came to him. Given the idea for the anniversary edition, Almond told Horowitz, the floodgates opened and there Mina was. "He knew about Mina in a way that he hadn't consciously come to terms with yet," Horowitz explained. "He did a little short story for us that's in the 10th anniversary edition, and then some time later he called me and said, 'I have an entire book about her.' "

When Almond first started doing speaking engagements after the publication of Skellig, Horowitz remembered that he carried with him this great big book. "He keeps ideas in it. He writes in circles and visualizes ideas, as Mina does," she said. "It was pretty interesting to me to watch this book come out of his psyche. His own passion for William Blake is very much a part of this, and his passion for ideas, and language. It's all part of David."

The good news for young readers is how Mina's journal entries model creativity and freedom. "The idea that I don't have to write in a linear manner, that I'm going to find things in daily life to write about. Those are things that can inspire a kid," Horowitz said. "And that's what he's helping kids to see--you can be creative on your own terms." One of the reasons Horowitz believes Almond's work has enduring appeal for both children and adults is the honesty in his characters' relationships. Mina and her mother have both experienced a tremendous loss--Mina's lost her father, her mother has lost her husband. "A book has the power to rip away the protection," said Horowitz. "As much as we all want to protect children, they can spot a fake from a mile away. Even when you can't fix the situation, instead of making it a fake fix, you can make it a more realistic, honest and straightforward response."

Almond tells readers you're tougher than you think you are. "Mina's really able to withstand the teacher," Horowitz explains. "The teacher doesn't make her feel good, the system doesn't make her feel good, and her own inner spirit and the poetry of William Blake sustain her. The creative process and your own construction of beauty in the world give you strength. Everyone has that capacity."

Even though Almond revisits similar themes in many of his books--the comingling of the material and the spiritual, the magical and the real--Horowitz believes that each book feels fresh because of the feeling of an inner quest underlying each of them. "It's very much about not only David's creative energy but his own history, where he comes from, the life he led, his religious questions, his sense of the bigger picture in the world," said Horowitz. "There's no easy answer to any of the things he's exploring, and I think as he writes a new book they're still in his head. It's all part of the David Almond inner quest to understand the world."


Book Brahmin: David Almond

On your nightstand now:

Jack Kerouac: A Biography by Tom Clark; Mao's Great Famine by Frank Dikotter; The Gary Snyder Reader; Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi; Silence by John Cage; The Viz Annual.

Favorite book when you were a child:

King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table by Roger Lancelyn Green: a fantastic book, magical and gory, and still in print--like most of this great writer's other books.

Your top five authors:

Depends when you ask... just now: Jack Kerouac, Flannery O'Connor, Samuel Beckett, Philippe Petit, Shaun Tan.

Book you've faked reading:

Lots of books, including the manual for our car--which maybe explains why it seized up last month because there was no oil in it....

Book you are an evangelist for:

Mystery and Manners by Flannery O'Connor: wonderful essays about the nature of fiction, the imagination, approaches to writing, Catholicism, the opportunities and difficulties in being a 'regional writer' and the weirdness of peacocks.

Book you've bought for the cover:

Well, for the title really, which made up most of the cover. I Can Make You Thin by Paul McKenna. He couldn't.

Book that changed your life:

Religion and the Decline of Magic by Keith Thomas. An amazing book: learned, provocative and beautifully written. It's about 16th- and 17th-century England: religion, magic, superstition, Catholicism, witchcraft, rationalism, Protestantism. Helped me to understand myself, my own background, and made me look at the world anew.

Favorite line from a book:

"Call me Ishmael."

Book you most want to read again for the first time:

Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. Went to the bookshop, bought it, sat underneath a statue outside the shop, started to read, and the whole city around me started to seem like a piece of fiction.


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