Last night I read Nikki Grimes’s A Girl Named Mister. According to her website, “New York Times bestselling author Nikki Grimes is the recipient of the 2006 NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children. Her distinguished works include ALA Notable book What is Goodbye?, Coretta Scott King Award winner Bronx Masquerade, the novels Jazmin's Notebook, Dark Sons, and The Road to Paris (Coretta Scott King Author Honor Books).” In other words, she’s good.
A Girl Named Mister is a novel told in verse about an almost-fifteen-year-old who gets pregnant. Mary Rodine is called Mister because of her initials, M.R. She is active in the church youth group and wears a purity ring as does her best friend, but when she begins to neglect her Bible and fall for a cute boy at school, she lets him take her where she never intended to go. He dumps her, but it is already too late. Sounds trite, I know. But the feelings and emotions are told in a fresh and sensitive way through Niki Grimes’ poetry.
Mister comes from a single-parent home, her church “A second home,/
as familiar as skin.” But in “Something’s Missing” she describes herself as “Ankle deep,/my faith a thing/ I wade in now and then.”
When Mister gets involved with Trey, her best friend Sethany reminds her of the commitment they have both made to God in “Don’t Remind Me.” The line breaks of Grimes’ poetry add to the awareness of Mister’s precarious position in a way that mere prose never could.
…We’re not doing anything,
I told myself.
Still, I couldn’t help but notice
how the purity band on my ring finger
seemed loose lately.
Like any day now,
Grimes refers briefly to the influence of physical intimacy in teen TV shows and songs like “Body on Me.” She’s not preachy, its just there, part of breaking down Mister’s spiritual defenses.
Mister justifies herself “In the Name of Love”
… Don’t ask me why,
I only know
it makes me happy.
And isn’t that what love is?
And isn’t love what God is?
So how can wanting more of this
I found “Trey’s Place” (where actual intercourse is implied) more graphic than I was comfortable with, but the end was very thought provoking:
Oh, God, oh God, Oh
God will forgive me,
And then the guilt begins in “Later” :
…But no matter how fast I flee,
step by step
guilt gains on me.
A few poems like “Wish” sound a bit flat, and I find myself wondering if an editor asked for some more explicitly expressed regret that wasn’t part of Grimes’ original vision.
Mister doesn’t turn to her Bible, but to a book of her mother’s—a book of poetry about Mary, the mother of our Lord. These poems trace Mary’s fears and doubts about telling Joseph, her parents, facing a condemning community. They describe the physical discomfort of pregnancy that Mister identifies with, and yet Mary experienced God’s presence in her pain, and trusted. From these poems Mister draws strength to face her own mother and admit her failure to God.
A Girl Named Mister is a quick read. Poetry is like that—lots of white space on the page, which can make it attractive to reluctant readers, but as soon as I finished, I was tempted to start in again at the beginning and reread my favorites. The tone, frank and full of attitude, reminded me of Keesha's House by Helen Frost, an Indiana poet/author of whom I am very fond. Unfortunately, I suspect the metaphors and structure of poetry would make this book inaccessible to my kids in Africa for whom English is not their first language. They would identify strongly with Mister's faith struggle, and the story would reaffirm things I want them to internalize if their level of English reading were high enough.
I highly recommend A Girl Named Mister for your church library. Excerpts could make great discussion-starters in a youth group, and it may just encourage a girl in trouble as the book about Mary did Mister.