This book is written in a diary form, with Mina describing how she spends her time (mostly up a tree), her relationship with her mum (both grieving the recent death of her father) and recalling the events leading up to her leaving school (the dreaded SATs day!) but also interspersed with 'Extraordinary Activities' and little poems and thoughts about words. Although the book is partly about home education, as an alternative approach to school, it is not preaching nor particularly taking sides. Mina paints a very unsympathetic picture of her time in school, she is obviously very bright and the teacher lacks any empathy with her unconventional learning style, and Mina is not prepared to compromise or jump through the hoops that are expected of her. Almond presents a very positive image of an autonomous, child-directed education that Mina's mum provides for her, giving her time alone to just think and absorb her experiences, and spending meaningful time together talking about things that interest both of them. He then puts the (boringly predictable) negative side into the mouth of the mum when she expresses concern about Mina not having any friends and maybe she will think about going back to school later.
I have to say that although I loved the book, and I hope people will read it and be provoked by the ideas, I was not totally convinced by the way it was written. I felt a little bit like he was trying too hard. It is a very difficult thing to do for a grown man to write as a little girl, even quite a precocious one, and I am not sure he pulled it off. Some of the time she came across much older than she is meant to be, not just precocious but more seriously reflective and mature than a girl of 12 could be. Then at other times I think he pitches it just perfectly. He has a scene where she tells the story of the day she runs away from school and goes down into a tunnel under the park, believing she is going down into the underworld to bring back her father, and it felt very real. A young child grieving might have all sorts of strange notions about their loss and what has happened to their lost parent, and the need to feel they can change things, and how vividly they can imagine something.
"Sometimes I think that Heston, the place where we live, is like ancient Greece, and that the Underworld is in the earth beneath us. I think of the King of the Underworld, Pluto, sitting on his throne deep down below. I think of his queen, the kind Persephone. Sometimes I think that I really did see something down there, something deep and ancient, and I wonder what would have happened if I'd kept on going, if I'd crossed the stream, if I'd walked towards the shadow in the shape of a man, if I'd said, 'My name is Mina McKee and I'm searching for my dad.' " (p.61)
I don't read much children's or young adult fiction any more so it was lovely to enter into this story, I am going to have to re-read Skellig now. I would highly recommend any of his books to anyone with kids 8+, definitely good for reading together as there are always ideas to discuss. Almond doesn't shy away from tackling challenging subjects, but without making you feel that the book is 'tackling a challenging subject', the story is the important part, the issues are secondary.