I'm a big fan of novels-in-verse. I’ve read dozens and have an entire bookshelf full of them to prove it! Novels-in-verse are gaining popularity with teens for the same reasons I love them: they are fast reads, character-driven, offer a strong voice, often deal with tough subject matter, and pack a lot of emotion a small space.
Now that I have a Kindle, I can read while I'm on the treadmill. It's been great because I can do something I love while I'm doing something I'm not so crazy about. This summer I spent a lot of time on the treadmill, lost twenty-two pounds, and read a bunch of novels-in-verse! I enjoyed all of them, but there was one so special that as soon as I came to the last page, I just had to read it again.
That novel is A GIRL NAMED MISTER by award-winning poet and author Nikki Grimes. If you haven't read it yet, you're missing a great read. There is so much to love about this story. If you're familiar with Nikki's work, you already her poems and stories are filled with surprises and powerful emotions. When I’m reading her writing, I always feel like narrator is sitting next to me telling his/her story.
Mary Rudine is the main character. Her voice and personality emerge from the beginning in a poem where she explains how she came to be known as "Mister."
Blame it on my mother.
She's the one who named me
The name is some throwback
her old-fashioned thinking
came up with.
Nobody but Mom
has called me Mary Rudine
First it was Mary,
then it was M.R.
Mister is all anybody
calls me now.
Mister's life revolves around the church. She sings in the choir, attends video night, and wears a purity ring. But lately she's been wondering if something is missing. Like most teens, she longs to explore where she fits in the world.
I turned the music
of the world
my feet itching to dance
to a new rhythm,
something other than
Then she meets Trey who sweeps her off her feet, and she begins to question her beliefs. He pressures her until she finally gives in. She becomes pregnant and her life is changed forever.
This could have been just another story about teenage pregnancy, but then that wouldn’t have been a Nikki Grimes’ story. Instead, she brilliantly weaves a story within a story as Mister searches for answers by reading a book of poems from the perspective of the Virgin Mary.
Suddenly, the reader is transported back thousands of years where Mary tells her own story. I had never thought about the fear, shame, and confusion young Mary must have experienced being unwed and expecting a child. But that’s what great literature does, it gets you thinking in brand new ways.
Something I especially love is how through the parallel stories of Mister and Mary, the reader comes to realize the human experience hasn’t changed through time. Our stories are universal. We love, we fear, we question just as those who came before us did. I believe every reader will connect to the emotions in this novel.
I won't give away the ending, but I'm hoping Nikki might write a sequel to this story someday. I want to know what happens to Mister and the baby.
I try to "read like a writer." So, I always look at techniques the author uses to bring a story to life and try to apply them to my own writing. I had some questions and Nikki was very kind to answer them for me.
1. Mary Rudine’s personality pops off the page from the very first poem where she explains how she came to be called Mister. How do you create a distinctive voice for each of your characters?
The voices come to me. It's the details I add: the family history, the back-story, the environment, etc. But the voice, that's a gift. I think it comes from a life-time of honing my writer's ear. I'm always listening to the way people speak, to their dialect, the nuances of their speech patterns, etc. I have a reservoir of voices in my mind, just waiting to be take up residence in whatever character I choose.
2. I love the parallel stories of Mister and the Virgin Mary. Why did you choose to write a story within a story? What were the challenges in doing this? Did you write each story separately, or did you alternate the way it appears in the novel?
I love working in multiple voices. I begin working on each separately, then weave the two together. As in Dark Sons, I wanted to explore the ways in which characters separated by thousands of miles, and thousands of years, are, in fact, alike. The universality of characters and story always interests me. The challenge, here, was to keep the dialogue authentic to the period for each character.
3.What are the challenges of writing a novel in verse? Do you write the entire story first, or do the revisions for each poem before moving on to the next one?
The main challenge in writing a story in verse is to strike a balance between storytelling and poetry. It would be easy for the mechanics of the story to overwhelm the text so that the poetry is lost. I've read any number of books that propose to be novels-in-verse, but which are, in fact, books of broken prose. One easy way to mark the difference is the absence, or presence, of metaphors. If you go 20, 30, 40 pages without encountering a metaphor, the book is not a novel in verse!
In the first draft, I concentrate on telling the story. With revisions, I begin to hone the poetry, pay more attention to scanning, lyricism, imagery. As I tweak the story, overall, I'm constantly looking to tweak the poetry, as well.
An advanced copy of Nikki's latest novel-in-verse, PLANET MIDDLE SCHOOL arrived in my mailbox today. I can't wait to start reading it! PLANET MIDDLE SCHOOL is available on Amazon for pre-order.The release date is Sept. 13.
Nikki Grimes is a New York Times bestselling author and 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).Creator of the popular Meet Danitra Brown. You can read more about Nikki and her work on her website.
Teachers: If you haven’t discovered the poetry of Nikki Grimes, I hope you’ll take this opportunity to read some of her work. Her poems are very accessible and speak to the heart of a child. I highly recommend SOMETHING ON MY MIND, Dial Books, 1978. This is a collection of poems I’ve used for many years as writing prompts with both elementary and middle school students. My students relate to the emotions and situations in the poems and in response have written their own heartfelt poems and personal narratives. I’ve never had to “make” a child write in response to these poems because they want to tell their stories. Although it’s currently out of print, Amazon has some new and used copies. You could also check your local library. It’s worth the effort. If you’ve already used SOMETHING ON MY MIND with students, I’d love to hear about your experiences.