Hi, everyone! It is I, The Unprofessional Critic, who’ll be taking you down YA memory lane this week. Thanks, Nikki, for the opportunity!
Most of you might know Lois Lowry for her stellar WWII middle-grade novel Number the Stars. However, I have the biggest soft spot of all for her Anastasia series. Anastasia Krupnik is a bookish wannabe writer with quirky parents (Dad is a poetry professor, Mom’s a children’s book illustrator) and a precocious little bro named Sam. Throughout the series, she ages from ten to thirteen, having misadventures that are madcap, believable, and age-appropriate all at once.
I remember the Anastasia books as the first time I really laughed at loud at dialogue. Lowry not only does an excellent job of writing from a young girl’s perspective, but she showed me how freaking funny written dialogue can be. I mean, I cut my reading teeth on Sweet Valley Twins (which, ugh, but hey, it got me excited about reading!) and the Little House books (thank you, Uncle John, for always buying me books above my age level). I love both of those series in different ways, but come on, the Wakefields were waaaaay too pretty and perfect for their own good. Also, Laura could be a real brat, and besides, I didn’t live in a log cabin (much as I yearned to at the time). Anastasia Krupnik was the first female protagonist to whom I could really relate. Good stuff.
I’ve chosen to write about Anastasia At This Address for a couple of different reasons. One, because it involves letter-writing and weddings, two things I LOVED as a preteen. (I still have a shoebox somewhere of correspondence between me and my dorky theatre pals, and being a junior bridesmaid in my now-divorced aunt and uncle’s wedding was the highlight of my eleventh year.) Two, this story COULD NOT happen today. Not just because of email and Facebook and whatnot. Because now, at some point, this guy would materialize in someone’s kitchen:
Don’t get me wrong, I’m over the moon that pedophilia is reviled and cracked down upon. I’m just saying that in today’s tech-savvy culture, there is no way a 13-year-old could correspond with a 28-year-old for so long with no one knowing. Also, there would not be a happy ending.
Anyhoozle, here’s the plot: Anastasia and her three closest friends have officially given up the pursuit of men, due to their crushes acting like total idiots, well, all the time. But Anastasia’s a crafty one: she suggests they give up the pursuit of boys instead. Why? Because after decoding the personal ads in the back of her dad’s latest issue of The New York Review of Books, Anastasia has begun writing to a SWM, 28, from NYC by the name of Septimus Smith. Under the nickname Swifty (Single White Intelligent Female: Tall, Young), she figures she will correspond with the guy until she’s a little older and can meet him in person. He likes women with sloops (a type of sailboat)? No problem–Anastasia buys a toy sloop from her three-year-old brother. Septimus requests a photograph? Easy–Anastasia cops one of her mom at a younger age. Meanwhile, Anastasia’s friend Meredith’s sister is getting married, and all four friends are junior bridesmaids due to the future sisters-in-law getting knocked up. Tons of dress-buying and flower-choosing kookiness ensues, not to mention many, many puns when the bride and groom receive an inordinate number of woks.
As it happens, Meredith’s Porsche-driving urban-dwelling uber-cool Uncle Tim IS Septimus Smith, as Anastasia finds out when seated next to him at the rehearsal dinner. And–oh noes!–she gets a letter that night saying he’s planning to come by and visit after the wedding! Knowing that Septimus will be expecting a gorgeous twentysomething woman who has a life-size sailboat, Anastasia convinces her parents after the (very wacky) wedding to spend the next day at brunch and the museum as a family. Therefore, Septimus is never the wiser, and Anastasia signs her very cute last letter to him as “SWIFTY: Someday, When I’m Fourteen? Thank You.”
See? It sounds creepy at first, but really it’s just too freaking cute. And sadly, a relic of an earlier time.
Here’s a breakdown of the highlights:
- I love how the thirteen-year-old boys in this book ACTUALLY ACT LIKE TEENAGE BOYS. As in: they don’t want to wear ties to the reception, they won’t dance and end up hanging out with the band, and when filling in a guidance office survey, they write in “Often” in the “Sex” column (instead of M for Male). One of my biggest beefs with a ton of my preteen reading (Baby-Sitters Club, Sweet Valley Twins, and Fabulous Five, I’m looking at YOU) is how freaking mature all the boys were. Seriously? That totally spoiled me for junior high, when the boys’ idea of flattery was loudly accusing me of stuffing my bra on a daily basis. Which I did not. (Whatever. They were all totally sorry in high school when I started dating a cool dude who appreciated me. And they’re all fat now.)
- In “giving up the pursuit of men,” Anastasia and her friends take themselves very seriously. Which is totally realistic for that age–not that I knew that then, because I was too busy taking myself seriously. I like how Lowry doesn’t condescend, but still presents this in a humorous manner.
- One of Anastasia’s friends, Daphne, talks about her divorcee mom becoming a feminist. The girls wonder what that means: the mom has given up makeup, but is it unfeminist to wear deodorant? Or be excited about a junior bridesmaid dress and getting your ears pierced? I remember declaring myself a feminist around that age (mainly because it gave me an excuse to roll my eyes at my friend Joe), but not being completely clear what it meant. Hell, I wasn’t completely clear until college, and there are a lot of misconceptions among women of all ages. It’s cool how Lowry starts a dialog here, without getting up on a soapbox.
- Anastasia’s very witty (which she gets from her awesome parents, who are up there with the Quimbys). Unlike Liz Wakefield, who had people creaming all over her sucky poetry and prose, she’s also a genuinely talented writer (her letters to Septimus are between chapters). She’s kind of a smartass, but not obnoxious, and very inquisitive, which her parents encourage without being too hippy-dippy about it. It’s a delicate balance: when I was a kid, my mom would NOT do my homework for me. She would, however, tell me what just about any word meant (and being a big reader, I asked a LOT) and give me some context or a sentence. Granted, the fact that my mom has a degree in English helped with that last part a lot, but the principle is the same. Kids want to be taken seriously by adults. Anastasia’s parents don’t see her like a special snowflake, but they treat her questions and observations like they matter. That’s really good parenting right there.
- There’s also a running motif about Anastasia wondering if she’ll finally become beautiful: “Anastasia opened her closet door and looked at the beautiful blue dress hanging there. She wondered if she would be truly beautiful herself, for the first time, when she was wearing the dress, carrying the bouquet of pink flowers, and walking down the aisle of the Congregational church. There had been times in the past when Anastasia had thought: Now. Now is the time I am going to be beautiful. Then she had a new haircut or something and looked in the mirror afterward, and it hadn’t happened. Her parents both said that they thought she was beautiful. But parents always said that to their kids, so their opinions weren’t trustworthy on that particular issue.” I like how it’s not the main point of the book, but it’s definitely an issue in Anastasia’s thirteen-year-old mind, as it is in the minds of a lot of teen girls.
For just a second, let’s pretend that Anastasia At This Address COULD conceivably be made into a film. (Then again, Beezus and Ramona is out this summer, so I guess it’s not completely out of the realm of possibility.) Those who read my blog know that I’m a biiiig fan of Armchair Casting Director (I’m both a movie geek AND a former actor. Deadly combo). To me, there is only one actress out there who could play Anastasia:
You may recognize Ariel Winter as the hilarious and smart middle daughter Alex on the hilarious and smart Modern Family (which Nikki wrote about on my blog!). She’s got the exact combo of intellect, curiosity and vulnerability to play Anastasia. Plus, Alex and Anastasia both wear glasses.
Even though the subject matter is dated, Anastasia At This Address–as well as the rest of the series–stands the test of time when it comes to strong writing and lovely characterization of a thoughtful, witty girl and her funny family. Believe me, I snark when there’s reason to snark. I also appreciate the really good stuff.
Like what you read? Why not check out my blog?