It’s high time “tomboys” rescued their term from its negative connotations. One very rarely runs across parents who use the word with pride. It happens, sure, but more often than not it’s paired with a complaint. Same goes for tomboys in children’s books. They exist but they tend to appear in works of historical fiction more often than not. The contemporary tomboy is, oddly enough, relatively rare these days. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I loved Kate Messner’s Marty McGuire as much as I did. Not only do you have a genuine one-of-a-kind 21st century tomboy on your hands, she’s rejecting the princess culture too! Finding great early chapter books can be an enormous chore. Now Marty makes my job as a children’s librarian that much easier.
Second grade was fine. Marty had no beef with second grade. But for all that her second grade teacher made third grade sound like a bed of roses, Marty is having a rough time of it. Her best friend Annie has been stolen by princess-loving girly girl Veronica Grace and now she won’t go frog hunting or do any of the other fun things she used to with Marty. So when the school play is announced (The Frog Prince) guess who’s shocked and appalled when she ends up with the role of the princess? That’s right. Marty has to be seriously convinced that this is a good plan and even then she’s reluctant. Fortunately, actors always have little tricks to make their roles their own. And Marty has a trick up her sleeve that’s a doozy.
The rise of the princess culture is a relatively recent phenomenon. I’m referring to the abject shameless marketing to little girls of anything and everything princessy. It didn’t really exist when I was a kid, only hitting its stride in the last decade or so. The result in the literary world has been a veritable cornucopia of pink and sparkly princess books for girls of every age. If a girl isn’t into princesses and their omnipresent pinkness they may sometimes find the literary pickings (at least in some bookstores) few. Marty McGuire‘s brave rejection of all of that comes as a breath of fresh air. Here we’ve got a girl on the cover reaching for a frog in jeans and sneakers. Pink sneakers, sure, but you go with what you’ve got. The tiara falling to the side seems like more of an afterthought than anything else. I mean clearly this is a different kind of book.
Which makes the story all the more difficult to pull off. In a way, you’re rooting for Marty and her anti-princess stance. The idea of her forced princessing is tricky territory. But Messner somehow manages to walk a fine line, never making this a book about “embracing your inner princess” or similar dreck. Instead, this is very clearly a story about trying something new and making it your own, even if it pulls you out of your comfort zone. That’s actually a very useful, if rare, lesson that kids need to learn. I know that when I was a wee slip of a lass that I was perfectly content to do the same darn things over and over. I feared change. Maybe if I’d had a Marty McGuire of my own I would have at least come to sympathize with a girl who has to do something uncomfortable because the grown-ups in her life tell her to. That kind of nightmarish situation would have horrified and enthralled me by turns.
I’ve always enjoyed Ms. Messner’s longer middle grade novels like The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z and Sugar and Ice. Those are fun but she seems to have a particularly keen ear for the early chapter book genre. I’m torn trying to figure out whether or not early chapter books or easy readers constitute the hardest children’s books to write. I may have to go with early chapter books because you have to be simple without dumbing down the story or the people. The fact that Messner manages to create three-dimensional characters with as few words as she does is remarkable. She also is awfully good at voice. From page one you are drawn to Marty. The book is written in first person and that person miserable right at the get-go. Getting your best friend stolen will do that to a gal.
When it comes down to it, this isn’t your typical early chapter book. Messner likes to upset expectations once in a while. For example, I love that Marty is not the only girl in the class who dances to her own drummer. The character of Rasheena has just as little interest in princessy stuff as Marty, and when she’s not playing basketball with the boys she’s acquiring the role of the king in the school play. If Ms. Messner ever gets tired of doing the Marty books she could always consider spinning off into a Rasheena series. I would purchase that for my library. You bet.
Full credit to illustrator Brian Floca for his work on this book as well. Floca’s style is an infinitely flexible thing. He can knock you dead with the sheer detail of a Moonshot or a Ballet for Martha one minute, and then scale it all down to the simple sketches required of a Marty McGuire. In this particular book Floca’s images provide a perfect complement to the action. Marty has to be appropriately female if not feminine. You have to look at her and know that she’s a girl, while at the same time avoiding the standard long eyelashes some artists give their female characters when they want to advertise their sex. Floca knows how to do that, and knows too how to pick out just the right scenes for illustration. The kid intimidated by extra long novels and who needs some images to help them through will be grateful for Mr. Floca’s work time and again.
By the time kids are reading early chapter fare the boys are reading “boy books” and the girls are reading “girl books”. They’ll mix it up a little if society lets them (boys can read Franny K. Stein and girls can read Horrible Harry) but generally they stick to their seemingly assigned roles. A book like Marty McGuire could change some of that. There’s nothing girly about this fun and funny story that’s easy to talk up. Sell the fact that Marty has to play a princess to the princess lovers and her adoration of science, nature, and slimy critters to the rest of the kids. You’ll end up with a whole slew of children ready and willing to become Marty fans. It’s a smart little novel that uses just as many words as it needs to. No more. No less. For those seeking relief from the onslaught of ubiquitous royalty, here is the answer to your prayers.
On shelves now.
Source: Publisher sent ARC for review.
First Sentence: “That nice Mrs. Kramer lied to me about third grade.”
Other Blog Reviews:
- The Cath in the Hat
- Kid Lit Frenzy
- The Book Maven’s Haven
- Random Chalk Talk
- Kiss the Book
- Ars Longa – Vita Brevis
Interview: Jenny Brown at Kirkus speaks with Kate
- For the record, Ms. Messner has a very different and very interesting book out for teachers of student authors at the moment that is well worth your time and consideration. Real Revision: Authors’ Strategies to Share with Student Writers is a fantastic collection of quotes from some of the top authors working today, as well as tips, tricks, and writing assignments. Gorgeous stuff.
- Listen to Chapter One of Marty on audiobook.
- I don’t know if they’re still available, but if you’d like a Marty McGuire discussion guide or some bookmarks, Scholastic may be able to hook you up.
- Speaking of lesson plans, this teacher made one of her own from the book.
- And this library made a booktalk for the title.
- Fellow author Sarah Ockler reminisces about her own third grade year.
Kate talks about revision and Marty makes an appearance: