October 19, 2017
(+++) A PARTIAL REVIVAL
Anastasia Krupnik Stories: Anastasia Krupnik; Anastasia Again!; Anastasia at Your Service; Anastasia Off Her Rocker. By Lois Lowry. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $25.99.
Wow, have times changed. When Lois Lowry, best known for The Giver and its sequels, created Anastasia Krupnik, she loosely based the outspoken 10-year-old Jewish girl on President Jimmy Carter’s daughter, Amy, who was known to speak her preteen mind at many opportunities. But Lowry added introspection to the character and also put in occasional missteps and some memories from Lowry’s own childhood. The first Anastasia book, simply called Anastasia Krupnik, came out in 1979; the series continued through nine books, with Anastasia Absolutely appearing in 1995. There were also spinoffs featuring Anastasia’s younger brother, Sam, plus the start of a 10th book that Lowry never finished because the series, no longer selling very well, was halted.
Now Anastasia is back and sanitized of pretty much all the distinguishing characteristics that made her interesting in the first place. The first book contains a four-letter word for excrement that has been removed. Scenes in which Anastasia’s pipe-smoking father lets her taste the foam from a beer he is drinking – one of Lowry’s personal memories – have been excised. An odd scenario in which Anastasia lies about her age and meets someone through a “Personals” newspaper column – long before Internet dating – is gone, even though nothing of any sort happens between the girl and the older man and the whole thing is played for laughs. And on and on the reissues go, excising the oddities that made Anastasia an interestingly offbeat character and turning her into little more than yet another preteen trying to make her way in the world and gradually, bit by bit, growing up and maturing.
Not even the book titles are sacrosanct. The first is unchanged; so is the second, from 1981, Anastasia Again! And the third volume, Anastasia at Your Service (1982), keeps its title as well (Anastasia is 12 by this time). But the fourth book, from 1984, has metamorphosed from Anastasia, Ask Your Analyst to Anastasia Off Her Rocker, which does not make a great deal of sense. This is actually one of the better books in the series, with Anastasia deciding she needs psychotherapy and therefore buying a plaster bust of Sigmund Freud at a garage sale and talking to it about her problems and concerns. The first and fourth books are unillustrated in their new editions; the second and third contain what are charmingly described as “decorations” by Diane deGroat. Anastasia now is shown as having long blond hair and being quite thin; originally she was considerably chunkier, was brown-haired, and wore far less stylish eyeglasses than in the new releases. She is not seen within the books, only on their covers, where she is rendered by Sara Not (deGroat did the original portrayal).
So where does this leave contemporary preteen girls whose mothers may remember Anastasia with amusement, bemusement, or some combination of the two? Anastasia still has a series of rather mundane adventures with a rather mundane family (although her usually calm and steady mother comes somewhat unhinged in the second and fourth books). She still has to adjust to everyday life in ways for which she is not quite prepared, as when she expects to become a summertime Lady’s Companion to earn money in the third book, then finds herself serving as a maid instead. She still has everyday traumas that loom large in her life, as when, in the first book, she works hard on a poem assigned in class, but does not write it according to the teacher’s instructions and therefore gets an F. She tries to negotiate everyday life to the best of her ability; although, as Lowry explains in her new introductions to the first two books, elements of Anastasia’s life will likely seem dated to young readers in the 21st century. Still, there is an undercurrent of groping toward maturity in the Anastasia books that can connect with young girls today as effectively as in the past. And Anastasia, although scarcely a complex character, has enough interest and enough remaining quirks to make time spent with her worthwhile. What she is not anymore is highly distinctive: her rougher edges are gone, her politically incorrect ideas and adventures have disappeared, and she is now just one among innumerable other preteen girls on the road toward greater self-awareness and understanding of her place in the world. However, since the appetite for such protagonists remains a large one, there may well still be a place on many bookshelves for Anastasia Krupnik Stories.