Anne, Pippi, Ramona, Harriet, Clementine: the precocious, incorrigible, too-bright-for-her-own-good young female character is an established archetype in children’s books. The magical thing about this archetype is that so many young readers relate to it, regardless of their individual personalities; extroverted kids see these girls as mirrors while quieter ones see them as a manifestation of what lives inside them.
Gertie Reece Foy seemingly fits into this long line of firecracker females. She’s starting Grade 5 on a mission to win over her estranged mother who, despite living in the same Alabama town, pretends that Gertie doesn’t exist. But Gertie trucks on. She’s outspoken, happy to handle half-dead amphibians, and is constantly mid-scheme. Author Kate Beasley also accurately captures some of the less lovely parts of entering the double-digit age range. Gertie’s lack of impulse control and melodrama (she frequently exclaims “Oh my Lord”) are celebrated and her failures are treated explicitly as learning experiences. This is a distinctly contemporary choice that will resonate with 21st-century kids who are encouraged to adapt rather than dwell on mistakes.
With its down-home charm and verbose heroine, it seems this book is reaching for a classic Kate DiCamillo feel. It reaches, but it doesn’t hit that mark. It’s difficult to fully invest in Gertie’s quest to reunite with her mother when we hear next to nothing about her feelings of abandonment or pain. And when Gertie does find a resolution, it comes lightning quick with little denouement to absorb how things have shaken out.
But Jillian Tamaki’s spot illustrations pick up where the story drops off. This is the youngest set of characters we’ve seen Tamaki illustrate and her round shapes, thick lines, and supremely expressive faces show the expanse of her range. Her depiction of Gertie’s mother in one of the book’s more serious moments is arresting and bursting with quiet power, and juxtaposes impressively with several scenes featuring Gertie in open-mouthed delight.
Comparisons to other books featuring game-changing heroines are not unwarranted, as Gertie follows in their footsteps. Unlike them, however, she doesn’t forge her own path.