Thursday, September 1, 2016

Gertie's Leap to Greatness by Kate Beasley

This was promoted at BEA as a similar to Beverly Cleary and is a debut novel. I'm going to say upfront that it was well done, but it's not all that.

Gertie has a mission. In fact, she always has missions, but this is a special one. She is going to be the greatest fifth grader ever, starting with making the best after-summer speech, then she is going to visit her estranged mother and make her realize how foolish she's been in throwing away her chance to be in the life of someone so awesome as Gertie. She's not quite sure what will happen after that, but she'll deal with that when it happens. Of course, things go wrong right away when new girl Mary Sue shows up and is instantly the focus of attention, being that she's from Hollywood and everything. Things go from bad to worse as Gertie manages to alienate her smart friend Jean, anxious follower Junior Junior, and even little Audrey, the girl her great Aunt Rae babysits, who is like her little sister. Then the whole school turns against Gertie when Mary Sue's mother, who is a an environmental lobbyist, says horrible things about Gertie's dad, who works on an offshore oil rig. Will Gertie ever prove she's awesome or will she end up the most vilified fifth grader in history?

The writing is smooth and enjoyable, Gertie's trials and travails are dramatic and humorous, and readers will sympathize as everything seems to go wrong when she has such good intentions. There is a lot of positive buzz on this title from blurbs by well-known, award-winning authors to positive reviews from Booklist and School Library Journal. Jillian Tamaki's illustrations give it a classic, Ramona feel. However, I didn't care for it much and unless it wins a major award won't be purchasing it. Why not?

The historical setting of the book confused me. Various details seem to set this story in the late 1950s or early 1960s. However, some are contradictory (and that may well be that I simply don't know this time period well - feel free to let me know in the comments!). Audrey is obsessed with the Waltons, Gertrude was still a "normal" name during this time period. However, Gertie's teacher, Ms. Simms, is African-American as is her best friend Jean and Alabama's schools were not desegregated until the early 1960s. I find it hard to believe that nobody commented or had any issues with Ms Simms (or hired her in the first place) in a small town in Alabama. Gertie is shown wearing shorts and I'm pretty sure girls simply didn't wear shorts in the 1960s in small towns in the south (or anywhere, as far as I know). Offshore drilling seems to have also started being used more around this time but environmental concerns seem to be a later development. Gertie's friend Junior Junior shows up with a mohawk hairstyle, which wasn't widely seen until the 1970s. The whole book felt like it was trying to be modern, and yet was also historical which was odd.

However, my main reason is just that most kids won't be interested in this book. Yet another white protagonist with friends of color (personally I was much more interested in how Jean, a smart African-American girl, fared in a small coastal Alabama town in the 1960s), a brash, spunky Southern girl with mother issues (I'm from the south, sort of, and I assure you that all our mothers are not dead or absent, though you wouldn't know it from middle grade literature) and a story set during the 1960s, which is a time period my readers can hardly picture, let alone drum up interest in. Teachers and librarians who date from this time period may fall on this with cries of joy, but there are plenty of similar books out there and, no matter how well-written this one is, it's just not unique.

Verdict: If you have lots of fans of Clementine, Kate DiCamillo, or Susan Patron this will be a popular choice for your library. Otherwise I'd call this an additional purchase.

ISBN: 9780374302610; Published October 2016 by Farrar Straus Giroux; ARC provided by publisher at BEA


Ms. Yingling said...

I think girls wore shorts in the 1960s-- there are plenty of pictures of neighborhood parties from my childhood, and we all had shorts. The other details... not so much. I also didn't like Gertie at all. Ramona was somehow still likable, but I couldn't warm to Gertie.

Jennifer said...

Would they have worn them to school? I remember Bridge to Terabithia everyone is shocked when Leslie wears pants to school - and that's set in the 70s? 80s? The book makes it sound like Gertie is wearing shorts to school I think. Anyways, I was thinking "it's so weird that a contemporary novel doesn't have the kids watching tv or using any media" and then realized it was supposed to be set in the 60s. Very disconcerting. It doesn't have the innocence of Ramona I think - that deals with "issues" but in a way kids relate to.