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Thursday, February 03, 2011

Story Secrets: A GIRL NAMED MISTER by Nikki Grimes + giveaway!

I have so much admiration for Nikki Grimes, poet and author, for our final Story Secrets guest. (In fact, one of the characters in Tell Me a Secret was a little bit inspired by my experience of her when I went to a writing conference several years ago - can you guess which one?).

So I am very pleased to chat with her today to find out some of the secrets behind A GIRL NAMED MISTER, her latest verse novel. And her publisher is generously giving away two copies! You can win one by posting a comment here and on the readergirlz blog.

Welcome, Nikki!


A GIRL NAMED MISTER is a book about a girl wrestling with her faith, her sexuality, and the point at which both intersect. It is also a story about choices and the consequences they may lead to.

Mister was not an entirely planned book, nor was it entirely organic. I’ll explain. I’d considered, at some point, tackling the subject of teen pregnancy. However, I had no specific idea of when or how I might approach it. Then, one summer, while at a conference, Ann Martin (A Corner of the Universe) and I started tossing around the idea of collaborating on a book. It was an intriguing notion for me, not being in the habit of working with another author in that way. Later, in my hotel room, I jotted down some possible ideas that I thought might work for both of us. I love doing multiple voices, and especially like creating parallel stories that wed the biblical with the contemporary. The next morning, I suggested that we create a book called Mary, Mary, written from the P.O.V. of Mary, mother of Jesus, and a contemporary teen named Mary. I thought Ann might take on the contemporary teen, while I tackled the biblical character. Ann found the idea interesting, but ultimately felt it wasn’t right for her, so I set it aside, and worked up a second possible theme.

As it happens, I never quite got around to developing that second idea, because I was unable to shake the first one. Mister introduced herself to me and, once she started talking, she would simply not shut up. I eventually committed to telling her story because she wouldn’t let me go until I did!

The final shape of the book was a surprise to me. I originally structured it as a straight parallel story, similar to the format I used in Dark Sons. However, the early drafts of MISTER were not working in that format, so I was forced to rethink how best to balance Mary’s story with Mister’s. Donna Bray, my editor at that time, suggested that I find a way to fold Mary’s story into Mister’s, and the solution I came up with was to have Mary’s story be a book which Mister read during the course of her own journey.

This was an extremely challenging book to write. I constructed, deconstructed, and reconstructed the manuscript more times than I can count. To make matters worse, I underwent two changes of editor, and one change of publisher from the time I began this work until the time it was finally published. I would finish the manuscript for one editor, only to have the next one come in and require additional changes, rewrites, etc., then have a third come in and do likewise. I honestly began to wonder if this story would ever see the light of day.

I had useful critique from Montage, my arts group with whom I share all of my works-in-progress. I also benefited from the help of a wonderful reader, Amy Malskeit, throughout. She gave me thoughtful feedback on each major draft, as did my agent, Elizabeth Harding. My work with Amy was very symbiotic because, as she was helping me with my book, I was helping her with her own. She also kept me encouraged on those days when I was close to tossing every single draft of the manuscript into the trash bin! I also got a major boost from a young reader who was, at the time, the same age as Mister. She felt the story empowered her to make good choices for her own life! The book took roughly two and half years from start to finish.

I brought quite a bit of personal experience to bear on this project. I had a child when I was young, though not as young as Mister. (I was nineteen.) I struggled with some of the same questions she and Mary had to wrestle with. I certainly remember the awkwardness and discomfort of being pregnant, the fear of the delivery room, and all that went with it. I remember the emotional isolation of being cut off from the baby’s father—the fear of that, of being all alone with the crushing responsibility of having a child. It was not a stretch for me to climb into the skins of Mister and Mary to explore their emotional journey. As for the spiritual component of the story, I interviewed a few young women raised in the church who experienced teen pregnancy, then struggled with the same guilt, doubts, and questions Mister faced regarding her faith, and her place in God’s heart after breaking his law.

I hope readers will come away from the book understanding what a huge decision it is become sexually active; how life altering it is to have a baby; how important it is to think through your choices. I hope the reader will begin to calculate the potential cost of giving in to pressure to have sex before you are ready, before you are prepared—not just physically, but emotionally.

Next up is a middle grade novel from Bloomsbury called Planet Middle School. After MISTER, I was ready for something a little lighter, something with humor at its base. Planet Middle School comes out next fall.


Thank you, Nikki! Readers, take a look at this moving trailer:


You have until midnight on Monday to leave a meaningful comment about the book, Nikki's interview, or your own personal struggles with difficult circumstances or faith. I look forward to hearing what you have to say.


  1. Thank you for the wonderful interview. It was interesting to read about the way the book evolved from conception to print. I hope that this book will be one that gets passed around in the schools from friend to friend. I'm going to suggest it for purchase at my library also. I'd also like to say that the trailer is very intriguing.

  2. Wow...what a great concept for a book. It really was a journey to come to it. I think relating Biblical stories to modern times is SO important. It's easy to feel like you can't relate to them at all because they were so far away or so different, so I really admire when someone is able to pull off a story that brings them closer to us. One of my favorite books is Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers. Basically, it took the book of Hosea and made a story out of it. A gripping, engaging, couldn't put the book down story. I loved it, and I can't wait to read Mister.

    TweetyB99 (at) aol (dot) com

  3. This is a great book touching on a serious issue. Religious teens often find themselves struggling with sexuality and afraid to admit it or talk about it because they think they are being sinners. I think if more people gave out birth control or were at lease open to discussing what it is, along with abstinence, we wouldn't be having so many teen pregnancies.

    Adding this one to my TBR.