Unwed mothers are nothing new. But in today’s reality TV-fueled world, their plight is often glorified, and the very real challenges they face are diminished amid the spotlight. That’s not the case, however, for 14-year-old Mary Rudine (aka the girl named Mister). Just one handsome young boy, one breathless failure to say “no” and Mary’s life is turned upside down.
Addressing teen pregnancy—especially for a tween and teen audience—takes a mix of masterful writing, accessible format and a raw, honest voice. That’s just what author-illustrator Nikki Grimes delivers in A Girl Named Mister, a free verse novel just published by Zondervan.
“You have to really capture your reader immediately; that’s just a reality,” Grimes says. “Our lives are so busy now, and books are written so much differently than they were years ago.”
You know a character is good when it keeps you up at night, eager to turn the next page. But you know a character is great when it keeps its author up at night, eager to get her story on the page.
“This character would wake me up,” says Grimes, a New York City native who now lives in Southern California. “I could not get rid of her.”
Grimes, who among her accolades has received the Coretta Scott King Award and Honor (for both text and illustration) several times, has tackled tough and realistic topics before—such as life in foster homes (Jazmin’s Notebook), a subject she knew firsthand.
“It can’t help but influence you,” she says, referring to her own troubled childhood, in which she was shuttled between relatives and foster homes. “For me, reading and writing were my survival tools,” adds Grimes, who wrote her first poem at age 6.
Among all the topics she has touched on in her books, Grimes believes the subject of unwed mothers is a particularly important one, especially in light of the inaccurate or misleading messages often portrayed in the media. “[The book] is the only way I could respond to what’s happening in society,” she says.
Her approach, however, wasn’t just to relay Mary Rudine’s thoughts, fears and challenges. Rather, Grimes—a Bible scholar for more than 20 years—interweaves a secondary, yet parallel, story. In chapters presented in a different typeface, Grimes tells the story of another Mary—the biblical Mary—and her initial shock and awe at being an unwed mother in a time when that could have resulted in her stoning. (Interestingly, Grimes’ 2005 Coretta Scott King honor book, Dark Sons, also juxtaposes a Biblical tale—the father/son relationship of Abraham and Ishmael—with a modern story. The book has just been reissued by Zondervan in a new paperback edition.)
In A Girl Named Mister, the two Marys’ stories are similar, yet each is tempered by the social mores of the time.
Readers see the Biblical Mary question her miraculous pregnancy and what it will mean for her, for Joseph and in the eyes of her community. Likewise, the contemporary character, Mary Rudine, seeks acceptance and answers and prepares for her uncertain future—hoping that someone will help her make the right choices.
Initially afraid to tell her mother about her pregnancy, Mary soon realizes that her mother had a hunch something was wrong—but, even though they are close, both were simply too nervous to tell each other their concerns.
Mary stays at home and in school during the pregnancy—taking the looks and comments that come her way—and mentally tries to ready herself for the birth and aftermath. Grimes’ portrait of the teen is both realistic and believable, both in the way the teenage father all but disappears (figuratively and literally) after he learns of the pregnancy, and in the way Mary reacts to the pregnancy—with initial disbelief, then fear, then resolve.
“Her voice is strong,” Grimes says of the modern Mary. “She does struggle, so the message isn’t that there’s no struggle.” But, she adds, “There is a way to triumph.”
Triumph has different resolutions for both young mothers, but, ultimately, Grimes feels she has done the topic justice.
“My tendency is to leave a story open-ended,” she says. “Life is open-ended; there's always more to the story."