On the surface, Kate Beasley’s debut might seem fairly typical, but a closer look reveals vast depths of feeling.
First it was the YA novel declared dead, 20-some years ago, only for an influx of new authors and the arrival of the Michael L. Printz Award to take the genre to unexpected heights. Because the publishing world seems to feels that if one kind of book is up, another must be down, it was the middle-grade novel’s turn to be sent to the infirmary. Now middle-grade books are commonly declared edgy and groundbreaking. Yet there is, and always has been, another kind of middle-grade novel, one that pushes boundaries in quieter ways.
Take Maud Hart Lovelace’s series about Betsy, Tacy, and Tib, which follows the friends growing up at the turn of the last century from ages five to marriage. In Betsy and Tacy Go over the Big Hill (1942), readers are introduced to an immigrant community that lives in “Little Syria.” Later, Betsy struggles with religion when she decides to become an Episcopalian, even though she knows her Baptist father will be disappointed. Or take Ramona and Her Father (1977), in which Beverly Cleary touches on something many children face—what it feels like to have a father out of work. And in this year’s As Brave as You, author Jason Reynolds explores the tensions between fathers, sons, and grandsons affected by the legacy of Jim Crow.
Gertie’s Leap to Greatness is another in this line of books that takes on real-life problems while keeping its writing true to the feelings of childhood. Gertie Reece Foy is a fifth-grader with two best friends, a father who works on an oil rig, and a mother who doesn’t acknowledge her existence. When she was a baby, her mother, Rachel Collins, left to live in a house on Jones Street, never to been seen again aside from a chance encounter at the Piggly Wiggly. But now the Jones Street house has a for-sale sign on it, and Gertie learns her mother is planning to get married and move to Mobile. Determined to do something to make Rachel Collins notice her before she departs, Gertie devises a five-phase plan to make herself the greatest fifth-grader ever.
The plan’s glimmering possibilities are stubbed out by the arrival of Mary Sue, the daughter of a film director making a movie in town. From here the story could have gone the predictable route, and in some ways it does. Glamorous Mary Sue thwarts Gertie and her quest for greatness at every turn, and subtly prods the class to turn against their former friend (and Gertie only makes things worse). While the broad outline is familiar, however, the depth of feeling makes it unique.
The book handles the issues in a way
that will make readers think about not just what it means
to protect the environment, but also what it means
to provide a livelihood in an imperfect world.
Gertie, bossy, bouncy, and busy, counsels herself in an internal dialogue that illuminates how a kid who gets knocked down picks herself up. What should she make of a mother who wants nothing to do with her? In the smartest kind of writing, Beasley has Mr. Foy explain to his daughter, in a way a child can understand if not entirely appreciate, why Rachel Collins left them: “For her, being with them was like wearing a pair of shoes that were too tight. You could limp along for awhile, but your feet would just hurt more until you were sure that if you walked one step further in those shoes, they’d squeeze your toes off.”
In another interesting take on contemporary life, Gertie must deal with the notion that what her father does for a living is “wrong.” On Career Day, Gertie plans to move her greatness plan forward by wowing everyone with a speech about life on an oil rig. But Mary Sue and her mother, an environmental activist, speak first about the horrors of offshore drilling. The book handles the issues in a way that will make readers think about not just what it means to protect the environment, but also what it means to provide a livelihood in an imperfect world.
Gertie Foy is debut author Beasley’s first heroine. It’s exciting to think who else is waiting down the road to push or pummel boundaries. Or even just prance through a story. That would be fine, too.
This review first appeared in the June 1 & 15, 2015, issue of Booklist.