25 March 2012


Reading Diary: Anastasia Krupnik by Lois Lowry

"Why did you have to give me the name Anastasia? None of the other kids can spell it, so when they have to vote for somebody by secret ballot, nobody ever votes for me. Like when I was nominated for Class Secretary, only four people voted for me and the other twenty-two people voted for Mary Ellen Bailey."

"The reason they didn't vote for you is because the Class Secretary has to have good handwriting. And your handwriting looks like hieroglyphics," said her father, looking up from the newspaper. "That time you tried to forge an absence excuse, you got caught right away, remember, because no parent--no adult, in fact--would get caught dead with handwriting like that."

"No adult would get caught dead with a name like Anastasia," Anastasia muttered . . .

A friend recently e-mailed me to ask whether some Young Adult titles his eleven year old daughter had expressed interest in reading were appropriate for her. I took one look at the list and quietly freaked out.

All of them were hugely popular YA novels from the last ten years--and all of them were the equivalent of that "hyperpalatable" junk food we can't stop eating once we start, that is making us obese and that is available everywhere. (So you still don't believe we live in a dystopia?) I dashed off a reply in which I explained, in detail, why I wouldn't give those books to a baboon, and promised to come up with better recommendations for his daughter.

But while it's easy to say why a book is "bad" (i.e., how it has crossed the line every parent is entitled to draw for his child), it's trickier to explain that a book is "good" (i.e., worth reading anyway, no matter how many "problematic" elements it also has). And it is "good" books I want to recommend--not merely "clean" books. The absence of questionable content is not the same as literary merit.

So what do I do when a book has both quesitonable content and literary merit, like Anastasia Krupnik does?

". . . did you ever have a love affair? After you were grown up?"

"Not since I married your dad."

"But before? . . ."

"Yes, I once had a love affair. Before I even met your father."

"With who? I mean with whom?"

"Oh, my goodness, Anastasia, no one you know. His name was John. He was a lawyer in New York when I was an Art student."

"Was he married so that you had to meet secretly and maybe there would be a detective watching?"

"Good heavens, of course not. He was just a young lawyer, not married . . ."

"And did you do wildly romantic, crazy things?"

"Sure." . . . Her mother grinned. "Well, one time we drove all the way out to Montauk Point in the middle of the winter and found a place to spend the weekend, and we walked on the beach in a raging snowstorm. After that we had dinner and drank a lot of wine and listened to Beethoven on a little radio that had a lot of static. And we hugged and kissed a lot. Is that the kind of thing you want to know about, Anastasia?"

And is that the kind of thing you want your children to read about, parents? (Yes, I'm being provocative, but I'm also honestly wondering.)

Now, I don't think it's automatically a bad thing for a mother in a Middle Grade novel to be a "woman with a past." Given the quality of this Middle Grade novel, it would have been a huge cop out for Lois Lowry to have made Anastasia's parents mere appendages to their daughter's characterisation and not interesting individuals in their own right. But this just begs the question of whether we want Middle Grade authors to cop out a little, for the sake of the still-innocent children to whom we give their books. There are precious years we want to prolong, you know.

But this bit with John and Anastasia's mother is actually very beautiful, an unexpected infusion of autumn hues in what we thought would be a story of bright summery shades. It fits right in with the logic of the rest of the novel, for Anastasia is constantly making new discoveries about people and things that show her she didn't know them as well as she thought. Sometimes they are not as exciting as she believed; sometimes they are not as ordinary as she imagined.

The writing in Anastasia Krupnik is much more sophisticated than I've come to expect from Middle Grade reads, reminding me why we risk losing so much when our first criterion for judging a book is whether or not it's "age appropriate." That's an important consideration for parents, of course, but if my new reading project has shown me anything, it is that if you're looking for "questionable content," then you're bound to find it . . . and bound to give it more weight than you should.

While reading this novel, I made a mental list of all elements that a parent (not necessarily my friend) might find objectionable--just to cover all the bases. But that was last night, and I've lightened up since then.

In my new capacity as special Censor (LOL!), I give Anastasia Krupnik by Lois Lowry my rare, awesome and coveted Nihil Obstat. Nothing stands in the way of giving this to an eleven year old girl.

Image Source: Anastasia Krupnik by Lois Lowry


Katie said...

This is on my mental to-read list for this year. I never got into the series as a kid, but something tells me I would like it more now.

Your point that "The absence of questionable content is not the same as literary merit" is so important - thank for you for articulating it so well! This is what I feel like I am constantly trying to make parents understand at my library. Some of them don't want their kids to read about any character who ever does anything wrong, and it's impossible to convince them to take home anything but the most inane fluff.

I think you ask a good question here, too. Do we want middle grade authors to cop out? I am kind of torn myself. Sometimes I think I want to preserve the innocence of being ten years old for every ten year old until the end of time. But then other times I think of authors like Judy Blume, whose books talk about issues girls might not feel comfortable discussing with anyone else, and I wonder what I would have done without them at that same age.

I think this is why it's good for parents to be involved in their kids' reading lives. I don't necessarily think they need to dictate every reading choice, but it's good to have an idea of what your child is reading so you're there to have whatever important conversation the book happens spark. (And I also think it's usually smart to hold off on too much YA until the teen years. Some of that stuff is tough to swallow at any age, let alone ten!)

Great post. Sorry to be so wordy - this is a topic that gets me excited!

Enbrethiliel said...


First of all, I love wordy comments when they're also meaningful! So thank you for this one, Katie. =)

When you brought up characters who never do anything wrong, I was reminded of your review of The Moffats by Eleanor Estes, in which you say that the book didn't have enough conflict to keep you interested. I actually felt the same way about it when I read it, and now I wonder whether it's because all the children are so squeakily good (or as you put it, just really, really cute), even when they're being a bit of a handful to the grown ups. Now, Anastasia is not 100% "good" . . . but she isn't "bad," either. She's delightfully complex--and that's what makes her worth reading about.

I didn't get into the Anastasia books when I was at the target age, either. (I do remember reading the one in which she answers a personal ad and sends in a picture of her mother, but even then, I knew I wasn't "getting" it.) Yet I love Lowry's voice in Anastasia Krupnik: so much better than what I sampled in Number the Stars and The Giver (where she is sober, restrained and more self-consciously purposeful--none of which do anything for me). I'd definitely like to keep reading this series.

As for Judy Blume and other "#YAsaves" types . . . I'm still on the fence about them. I see why their books would be a lifeline to young readers who have nothing else--but if those readers did have other outlets, I don't think books should have that pride of place. Particularly not books that have not yet stood the test of time. But my thoughts on this matter are quite complex, and I should save them for another post! =)

Sheila said...

I had to click over just to see what you might mean by "questionable content." I never found anything objectionable in those books when I read them so many years ago ... and I *did* feel iffy about reading Judy Blume; those scandalized me a bit.

I LOVED Anastasia growing up. I was obsessed. I read all the books over and over. My writing journal is green because hers was green. I identified with her so much. And I definitely love the voice in those books.

Enbrethiliel said...


My decision to go down the Fantasy path early in my reading career meant that I managed to avoid all the really controversial Judy Blume novels. (I think the only two I read were Superfudge and Starring Sally J. Friedman as Herself.)

I know exactly what you mean about Anastasia being likeable enough to be obsessed over. =) Did you have a special poetry outfit, too, Sheila?