Gift Guide 2016 (No. 5): For the Girl with Gumption
December 15, 2016 § 1 Comment
Perhaps the most hopeful thing I’ve read on the Internet lately is BookRiot’s series of interviews with middle-grade authors regarding a renewed commitment—in response to the misogynistic rhetoric that seemed to win out in this past election—to writing strong female protagonists, of giving our daughters literary role models of persistence, resilience, compassion, and action. The future can only be bright if our girls see themselves as integral to every part of it. Or, in the more poetic words of Lindsay Egan, author of Hour of Bees (on my list to read):
“We writers are implored to write characters with goals, characters who want things, characters who act to move forward. But in light of the current political climate, I feel it’s a real imperative now for me to write female characters who do things. Girls who speak up, girls who defend others, girls who make mistakes and ask for forgiveness, girls who dream and think and work for the world they wish they had. Girls who don’t accept hate or unfairness and fight to make things better. Girls who sacrifice their own comforts for the safety of others. Girls who know that showing kindness is never weakness. Girls who DO things. The future is coming, and I want the girls of the future to remember that change is in their hands.”
Fortunately, this trend is already underway in middle-grade literature, as evidenced by the fantastic female-dominated novels that came out earlier this year. I cannot rave enough about the titles I promoted over the summer in this guest post, of which Natalie Llyod’s The Key to Extraordinary, Ally Condie’s Summerlost, and Lauren Wolk’s Wolf Hollow feature heroines that live up in every way to Egan’s directive (Ages 10-15 for all).
But today I want to focus on Gertie’s Leap to Greatness (Ages 8-12), a debut novel by Southern writer Kate Beasley (sister to Cassie Beasley of Circus Mirandus, see my post here), which I just finished and whose female star has left me positively giddy. While squarely a middle-grade chapter book, it is also, arguably, more accessible to a slightly younger audience than the books I mentioned above (in this, it reminds me of another favorite, A Tangle of Knots).
Just read the zinger of the book’s opener and tell me you aren’t hooked: The bullfrog was only half dead, which was perfect.
Gertie, our fifth-grade protagonist, is a girl of action in every sense of the word. (And, yes, she resuscitates a bullfrog with a turkey baster.) Each morning, when Gertie runs out of her Alabama house to board the school bus, two Twinkies in hand, her aunt calls after her, “Give ‘em hell, baby!” And indeed, Gertie continually refuses to accept the hand she is dealt: not the pretentious Hollywood newcomer, who steals Gertie’s seat at the front of the class and makes it her point to outdo Gertie whenever she can; not the school’s Clean Earth Club, which feels to Gertie like an attack on her father who works on an oil rig; and not her mother, who abandoned Gertie as an infant and whom Gertie is convinced she can win back. The force of righteousness is strong in this one.
Gertie’s running internal dialogue—fresh, indignant, and outrageously funny—organizes itself along the lines of “missions” and “phases,” which are passionately hyperbolic, often misguided, and always genuine. She, Gertie Reece Foy, was going to be the greatest fifth grader in the whole school, world, and universe! And that was just Phase One.
Some critics and readers have criticized Beasley’s novel for a lack of originality, calling Gertie a modern Ramona Quimby, or an older, Southern version of Sara Pennypacker’s Clementine. In response to that—and to quote Gertie’s aunt—I say, What in the Sam Hill is the matter with that?! Don’t we want more of those characters? Ramona and Clementine endure, not just because they are girls of action, but because they, like Gertie, create the kinds of big, beautiful messes from which they grow.
Gertie fails constantly in this book. As in, ear-splitting train wrecks. She fails at being the smartest, despite staying up all night studying. She fails at landing the leading role in the play, despite channeling Evangelina Who Would Not Eat Her Vegetables all day long.
She fails at being a best friend, when she bulldozes her way through a mission with no regard for others’ feelings. She fails to listen, when her father explains his own conflicted feelings surrounding his work on the oil rig. She fails to see what’s right in front of her nose: that her aunt is a better mother to her than her biological mother would ever be.
But, for every failure, Gertie picks herself up and tries again. She works until she gets it right, or until she—sometimes the truer sign of growing up—adjusts the questions she’s asking. Her gumption is as beautiful as it is raw. If there was ever a character you wanted to strangle one minute and wrap your arms around the next (assuming she’d hold still long enough), this is her. And that’s exactly as it should be. (Props to Jillian Tamaki’s occasional pencil sketches, which further endear us to Gertie, with her bulldog expression and messy ponytail.)
When I read books like Gertie’s Leap to Greatness and the others mentioned above; when I imagine my daughter and her friends reading them in a few years; when I consider reading them aloud to my son if he won’t pick them up himself, I feel momentarily reassured: the present may be a hot mess, but the future is bright.
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