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