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Let's hear it for the good girls
If "Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History" (thank you, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, for the title that made your scholarly book famous), well-behaved girls seldom make literature, either. The drama in female characters usually comes from their rebelliousness, their inability to follow rules, their feistiness, their refusal to settle, their hot tempers, at the very least their tomboyishness or mischievousness. There's a reason why Scarlett O'Hara is the heroine rather than Melanie; Jo March rather than her sisters; Ramona Quimby rather than Beezus; Laura Ingalls rather than her perfect sister Mary. Junie B. Jones. Clarice Bean. Shy, awkward Bella in Stephenie Meyer's "Twilight" series may be a nice girl, but she is, after all, determined to marry a vampire.
In "If I Stay" (Dutton: $16.99, ages 14 and up), Gayle Forman takes on one of the darkest subjects that crops up in the mind of any thoughtful teenager: What makes life worth living? What would the world look like without me? And the ever-popular: How would people behave at my funeral? Dark subjects are a dime a dozen in YA literature. The striking thing about "If I Stay" is that Forman explores all these midnight questions through a most unusual character: a good girl.
Seventeen-year-old high school senior Mia is a parent's dream child. She may not be the world's best student, but she's a great cellist, and she seems on the verge of being accepted to Juilliard, the elite music school. She gets along with her parents; indeed, one of the dark secrets she confides to her boyfriend is that she enjoys spending time with her family. She adores her younger brother, Teddy, and gets a kick out of all his 8-year-old antics. She's well-balanced, thoughtful . . . and still a gripping character.
On a rare snow day in rural Oregon, Mia's family piles into the car to go for an adventure and is immediately involved in a catastrophic car accident. Mia finds herself watching the rescue efforts in a disembodied state: There are the bodies of her father, mother, brother . . . even her own, the only one worth rushing by medevac to a hospital. Mia spends the rest of the novel watching, thinking, remembering, unable to communicate with anyone but present as her friends and remaining family keep watch over her comatose figure. It becomes clear to her, slowly, that returning to her body or letting go is a choice she will have to make.
Being a good girl has not prevented complications in her life. Surrounded by rock 'n' roll enthusiasts -- her parents are ex-rockers, her boyfriend is in a band on the rise -- she has felt constantly out of sync. But unlike most teen characters, she is free of anger; she even has a fantasy about visiting the other driver in the accident, who suffered only superficial wounds, to relieve him of the guilt of wiping out an entire family in a tragic moment behind the wheel. It takes a good girl, and a strong one, to turn the despair of this beautiful novel into the discovery that, orphaned or not, every child goes on into adult life alone and has to find the strength to leave family behind.
Catherine Hardwicke, director of the fierce girl-gone-wrong film "Thirteen," as well as the film made from Meyer's "Twilight," is set to direct the adaptation of "If I Stay." This fact gave the movie industry press a field day, since Hardwicke was unceremoniously booted from the second installment of "Twilight" by the same studio that has hired her to make "If I Stay." (Hardwicke, by the way, is becoming quite the leading director of young-adult literary material; she's also set to direct "Maximum Ride," a science fiction fantasy based on the popular series by James Patterson.)
Like Mia in "If I Stay," Julia Gillian is well-balanced, thoughtful . . . a good girl, and still a gripping character. (Interestingly, both girls are prevented from being too good by being less-than-stellar students; they are good girls, not perfect girls.) The first book of this series for middle readers (ages 8-12), "Julia Gillian (and the Art of Knowing)," took place largely in Julia's head while she walked her dog in the 10-block perimeter that she was newly allowed to explore on her own. A set of innocent misunderstandings, lies and cover-ups set in motion the action of the new forthcoming book, "Julia Gillian (and the Quest for Joy)" (Scholastic: $16.99, ages 8-12, illustrated by Drazen Kozjan).
Life in the fifth grade is much more complicated than it used to be. All the rules seem to be changing, and Julia Gillian is a great respecter of rules. Julia's best friend, Bonwit Keller, suddenly starts making his own lunches rather than bringing lunches lovingly decorated by his artist mother. (Bonwit Keller is not the only humorously named character in this novel; there is also Vince Wintz.) Julia pretends to agree with Bonwit that, indeed, it is babyish to have parents make a fifth-grader's lunch. But this marks the beginning of an unhappy period; all the things that Julia has felt sure of seem to be slipping away. She liked having her parents hide encouraging notes in her lunches; she liked the anticipation of fifth-grade trumpet lessons more than the reality of having to force sound out of an unresponsive piece of metal.
Julia Gillian is at that magic age between innocent childhood and self-conscious adolescence. She can amuse herself by purposefully using old-fashioned, grown-up sounding phrases ("Indeed I do"), but she shores up her confidence by wearing (or carrying hidden in her backpack) a fierce papier-mache mask of her own making, plastered on the inside with those notes her parents used to slip into her lunch. What's a good girl to do when she can't figure out where solid ground is? For a while, she can hide her troubles through subterfuge, but in the end, Julia Gillian is too honest to keep up all the pretenses. And once Julia starts admitting what's giving her trouble, everything gets much easier. She can again, as her trumpet teacher says, "find the joy," then, "Let the wild trumpetus begin!"
It takes an epic goodness to overcome "The Three Robbers" (Phaidon: $16.95, ages 4-8) of Tomi Ungerer's picture book (first published in German in 1963). Master illustrator Ungerer concentrates all evil into the figures of the highwaymen, who "terrified everyone. Women fainted. Brave men ran. Dogs fled." Their high black hats with low brims, ominous as an executioner's hood, leave only the flash of a white eye. Their shadowy silhouettes, armed with their weapons of choice -- a blunderbuss, a pepper blower, a huge red axe -- creep about against a midnight-blue background, lit by a chilly moon.
"One bitter, black night" they waylay a carriage containing no treasure to plunder but only an orphan: "She was on her way to live with a wicked aunt. Tiffany was delighted to meet the robbers." The very moment the robbers lay eyes on the little girl, they are transformed: Their evil eyes go wide, and there is a definite softening as they "bundled her in a warm cape, and carried her away." A typical heroine of the small female variety would move into the robbers' cave like a harridan and wrap them tight around her little finger, but Tiffany doesn't need to. When they show her their trunks filled with treasure, she admires it and innocently asks: "What is all this for?" The robbers "choked and sputtered. They had never thought of spending their wealth." Together Tiffany and the robbers scour the countryside, gathering up all the "lost, unhappy and abandoned children." They build a magnificent castle where the rescued children are dressed in red caps and capes -- small, cheerful versions of the robbers' costumes. It's a perfect fable about the transformative power of a good girl.
Sonja Bolle's Word Play column appears monthly at www.latimes.com/books.