My Name is Mina, By David Almond

A slick return to Almond’s young heroine
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In Skellig, David Almond's first and still most popular children's novel, Mina is the nine-year-old William Blake-loving girl who lives opposite the boy hero Michael and shares his knowledge of the decrepit angel found living in his garage. Now she has a story to herself, in what passes for her handwritten journal, breaking off at intervals into dramatically different type faces for extra emphasis.

Mina treads a delicate path between true sentiment and mawkish sentimentality. Not since Robert Browning's Pippa Passes, when his idealised heroine trills "God's in his heaven, all's right with the world", has there been a junior female of quite such relentless positivity. The moment when she goes to the loo and listens "to the lovely tinkling sound of my pee splashing down into the water" must surely have lost her any remaining teenage male readers.

But Almond is a canny as well as a considerable writer. At a time when general negativism is riding high in teenage fiction, it is good to have an author coming out with a more uplifting view. Mina chooses to be home-schooled because she can't bear the stifling atmosphere of a school dominated by preparation for the next SATS exam. The loving relationship she has with an understanding mother comes over as a welcome relief. Her passion for nature and skill at writing may sit uneasily in an urban culture given over to screen entertainment, but is it necessarily the worse for that?

By the end, Mina is beginning to question her habit of sitting alone in a tree rather than having anything to do with her peers. She starts thinking of coming out of her social isolation by renewing an old friendship; she also takes an interest in some new neighbours and a baby. Their miserable older son, who is of course Michael from Skellig before his particular adventures, gives her the idea that by learning from him and others in trouble, she might also be able to deal better with the difficulties she will face should she return to school. But readers are left having to imagine what might ultimately happen to her for themselves.

For some, there will still be too much added saccharine to make this novel their own cup of tea. Others may find that it speaks to them far more directly than do other contemporary stories. Either way, reader reaction is unlikely to be anything less than extreme.