With all due respect to Jonas from The Giver, my heart belongs to a different Lois Lowry protagonist. Not a character who imagines themselves to be perfectly ordinary only to find out that they are, in fact, very special—so special in fact that their life’s work will be to shield an entire Community from the crushing pain of memory. But one who is actually fairly ordinary, albeit in a special way: Anastasia Krupnik.
Lois Lowry is one of the biggest names in chapter books, and the winner of two Newbery Medals for The Giver and Number the Stars, but the Anastasia books, of which there are nine, are her cult classics. Any time I meet a fellow Anastasia devotee, our love of the books serves as a shortcut to mutual understanding.
Anastasia is a smart kid who isn’t a Smart Kid. (Her brother, Sam, who has his own spinoff book series, is the prodigy of the two.) Anastasia is not Rory Gilmore—she reads a lot of books, but the adults around her don’t call attention to her precocity. Her parents clearly love and enjoy her, and occasionally find her exasperating, which she is, because all 10-to-13-year-olds are. Her mother is a children’s book illustrator and her father is a poet and a professor at Harvard, and I think the Anastasia books were my first real exposure to either of those as actual jobs. In fact, it was Anastasia’s father introduced me to Wordsworth. (Should blame him for my MFA in poetry?) And of course, Anastasia at 13 finds her parents and their jobs horrifying. She wants her mother to wear makeup and host luncheons. She wants her father not to keep his manuscripts in progress in the refrigerator (in case the house burns down).
Nothing enormously transformative ever really happens to Anastasia. Mostly, her problems seem to resolve themselves with time—the incremental process of growing up. (And, in the case of Anastasia, Ask Your Analyst, by talking to a plaster bust of Sigmund Freud she buys as a garage sale.) She’s good at English but bad at science. She’s not popular but she’s not an outcast. She’s neurotic but confident. She wants exciting things to happen to her, but she’s hemmed in by the state of being 13.
And she’s funny. This may be the most memorable thing about the Anastasia books. They’re funny the way the books I love as an adult are funny—effortlessly, and to their core. The climax of Anastasia Has the Answers sees Anastasia climbing a rope in front of a delegation of international educators—and the female gym teacher on whom she has a hopeless crush—and reciting Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “God’s World,” which Anastasia thinks is “really neat” and which her father describes as “sentimental garbage.” I mean, I challenge find me another middle-grade book with a tossed-off burn on Edna St. Vincent Millay.
Anastasia Krupnik has also been banned a few times over the years, because of one instance of “shit” (In 1986, “Roosevelt Elementary School’s principal in Tulare removed the book but returned it later with the word ‘shit’ whited out”) and a reference to Playboy. Neither of those offenses left much of an impression on me when I read (and reread, and reread) the book. I was too focused on Anastasia herself, the delightfully wry, trademark-free middle grade protagonist of my dreams.