Not So Reckless, But Pretty Glorious

Reckless, Glorious, Girlby Ellen Hagan
Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2021

Beatrice Miller is unsure of herself.  She lives with her mother and her paternal grandmother in Kentucky and attends middle school. Her father died before she was born, and she has two supportive best friends.  Beatrice’s moments of rebellions and her ambivalence about moving from childhood to adolescence are hardly reckless, but they feel that way to her. Ellen Hagan’s novel in verse captures that exact sense of confusion and conviction so common to girls struggling to find their way forward without rejecting the past, although sometimes “it seems like distance/is something we need most.”

Mamaw is Beatrice’s tough and talented grandmother. She can bake or cook anything, and she tries to inculcate in Beatrice, her granddaughter and namesake, that pride and disregard to social conventions are keys to contentment.  Beatrice’s mother works long shifts as a nurse; she is often frustrated by her mother-in-law’s defiance and her indulgence for a young girl in need of guidance. Beatrice is caught in the middle of these two matriarchs.  She accurately sees herself as “The great copycat. Play it up/or down./Depending on who/I’m with, what’s expected of me.” 

The poems representing Beatrice’s consciousness are varied and beautiful. Some take the form of internal monologues, lists, or rational discussions with herself about what exactly she wants and needs. Others feature colorful and associative images, many involving food that is central both to her family’s routine and to Mamaw’s work in a bakery:

Olives & jalapeños, roasted tomatoes,
mushrooms & mozzarella, pineapple & pecorino,
fontina & feta, ham, salami & pepperoni, Parmesan,
paper-thin slices of onion, red peppers & oregano…

Mamaw does absolutely nothing halfway…

Beatrice struggles with her identity as a “hillbilly,” which she both flees and embraces, and compares herself to friends whose bodies seem more in line with the changes of puberty. She disdains the popular and rich girls, but also seeks their approval.  Girlhood and womanhood appear in many poetic images, from Beatrice’s sense of herself as skinny, pale, and unattractive, to her proudly ageing teacher, Ms. Harrison, who encourages the class to create metaphors about her advanced years:

Ms. Harrison is a fossil (she really howled at this one)
Ms. Harrison is a cool antique you find at a flea market
Ms. Harrison is a dusty old-fashioned book you find in
your attic.

The book’s poems begin as isolated sketches, but gradually build narrative momentum as compelling as prose.  Characters develop from initial sketches limited by Beatrice’s preliminary descriptions, to fully formed people who evolve through challenges.  Readers learn more about each one’s backstory, and eventually share Beatrice’s changing perceptions of those around her. Adults, friends, even enemies in school all have reasons for their behavior, even if not all escape the constraints of their environment to become someone new. Ultimately, that is Beatrice’s goal, to “See myself new/taking up space//being the girl/I was always/meant to be.” Hagan’s skills as a poet combine with her psychological insights into a young woman’s search for identity.  Reckless, Glorious, Girl uses specificities of time and place to ground bold statements about girls’ needs to claim their own lives.  It offers both plenty of questions and equal amounts of reassurance to young readers who are “Trying to pretend one moment/& trying to be real the next.”

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