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Anastasia Krupnik: the proto-Lena Dunham of Elementary School Libraries

The OG city-based girl protagonist who possessed impressive cultural capital and a heavy sense of wit.

Not going to lie: Anastasia Krupnik was a total baller in the way bespectacled smart girls from Boston are. She basically epitomizes the “liberal elite,” which I absolutely love. Her world, filled with references to her father’s Billie Holliday records and articles about Elizabethan poetry in the New York Review of Books felt totally exotic to me and my vanilla Protestant upbringing.

The series, published throughout the 80s and early 90s, is about Anastasia’s adventures growing up; still, not all YA slice of life stories address the trivial conflict of everyday life with such aplomb.

Not all YA slice of life stories address the trivial conflict of everyday life with such aplomb.

Anastasia Krupnik always felt like a welcome indulgence.

My parents had always encouraged reading, but my mom tended to push me towards Newbery winners, which as every child knows, are often joyless, painful reading experiences. Of course, she was also the woman who bought me my first copy of Harry Potter, but she wanted me to read work of, at least at the children’s standard, “literary merit.” A Newbery is supposed to guarantee a certain level of challenge and thoughtfulness in reading material, and I appreciate the effort to try to mold me into a more inquisitive student.

However, I’m pretty sure it’s because I was forced to read Island of the Blue Dolphins in my fourth grade class that I still, even as an English and Creative Writing major, hold such an irreverence for the literary canon. Listen, I don’t know how Scott O’Dell managed to make the story of a girl stranded on a coastal island filled with wild dogs and so immensely boring, but he did.

The Scarlet Letter in tenth grade was an equally joyless experience. For a book about a community rocked by a minister’s sexual misconduct, it rambles on about the way the sunlight shined onto Hester, making the woman everyone saw as a devil look like an angel or some other clunky heavy-handed metaphor. Do I acknowledge the Very Blatant symbolism that Hawthorne soooo masterfully embeds in his text? Yeah, sure, if you’re into ridiculously self-indulgent prose about a letter that a woman sewed on her cloak.

I understand the significance of his writing in the sense that it reflects certain attitudes at a certain time with lessons that still apply today. And I’m not saying that I’d do any better given the subject matter, but I’m not into this idea that it deserves this much real estate in a classroom setting. Do we revere novels just because they’re kind of old? The novels considered “literary fiction” today were often just popular novels in their time—books by your Grishams John and your Browns Dan.

anastasia krupnik
Anastasia Krupnik very well could be considered a seminal text in the future.

Lois Lowry, who also wrote the Newbery-winning Number the Stars and The Giver, gets to exercise her skills in humor and relatability through the Krupnik family. Even with her background of immense cultural capital, and in part because of her self-awareness, Anastasia is an incredibly likable protagonist who is intelligent but also acts her age. She’s snarky at times, but never mean-spirited. She’s open-minded, generally well-behaved, and emotionally-balanced but definitely not some sort of perfect angel.

Who else would consult a bust of Sigmund Freud about having too many gerbils?

It’s her willingness to learn new things and her tempered ambition to do what is right that makes her so fun. Who else would consult a bust of Sigmund Freud about having too many gerbils? Or have a crush on her alliteratively-named glamorous gym teacher who invented boho-chic before Vanessa Hudgens was terrorizing Coachella?

I search Gregory Peck’s face and Paul Newman with Joanne Woodward on a semi-regular basis on Google Images and I’m a subscriber of the You Must Remember This podcast, so I completely understand Anastasia’s love of Laurence Olivier and Clark Gable.

I wouldn’t call her “precocious,” but she is inordinately sophisticated for a middle schooler.

I’m not surprised, since she has a Harvard professor and poet (with an enviably thriving career) father and an artist mother. Something I really love about Anastasia is her appreciation for her parents’ interest in esotericism; even if she doesn’t understand what it is that they do, she feels pride in the fact that “she was absolutely certain that there wasn’t a single person in the entire suburbs of the United States who would ever in his entire life read an article called “’Morality and Mythology.’”

When Anastasia imitates a snooty upper-crust woman and makes a joke where she calls the low-income housing community the “Habitation of the Great Unwashed,” Anastasia’s father is furious at her for her classist remark, even in jest. He was a child of the Depression-era, where your Christmas gift was one slice of tangerine or something, and he brings up the fact that he grew up in poverty to a family that was eventually able to send all five of their children to college.

Sure, Myron Krupnik may be a part of the “liberal elite,” but he also represents that Randian ideal of pulling up one’s self by the bootstraps to appreciate Fellini films and Italian operas. Yet he understands that not everyone starts on equal footing and that he was lucky to come from a family that valued education. I imagine he’d be the kind of professor, albeit one a little peeved by the increasing “political correctness” of students over the ages, who would serve on an advocacy board for first-generation low-income students.

Though the Anastasia Krupnik series was featured on the American Library Association’s “Most Frequently Challenged” books list, I always appreciated that it dealt with the simple realities of being an observant kid with caring but un-coddling parents. It wasn’t ever gritty for the sake of being gritty; its mentions of beer or unseen sex between Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind are just part of the cultural world Anastasia lives in.

Most of these references went over my head as a kid, but it’s precisely the kind of reference I appreciate as an incoming college sophomore, which makes this book perfect for a re-read. I personally prefer the illustrated covers where Anastasia has brown hair and circular glasses, but I’ll settle for the kind with a faux-Anna Chlumsky or the reprint where she looks like a Polly Pocket and has her book renamed from Anastasia, Ask Your Analyst (a classic) to Anastasia Off Her Rocker.

And you’re right, Anastasia. I wasn’t a fan of Johnny Tremain, either.

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