By Guest Blogger Darren Garnick
This is the first in a series of guest posts on heroines featured in The Heroine’s Bookshelf. My guests? Honored authors, writers, experts, historians, and more. First up is Darren Garnick, an unlikely adherent of everyone’s favorite Anne with an e. Want to combine some winning with your reading? Click here to win a galley of the book (and for links to other contests featuring the book).
I grew up reading Judy Blume’s “Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing” series, which was heavily promoted during my elementary school librarian’s story hour. Many of the same themes of awkward adolescence are now the bedrock of Jeff Kinney’s “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series, which I’ve been reading aloud with my 8-year-old son. I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing Kinney for a newspaper column, and was happy to learn that he’s been using his fame to encourage boys to embrace reading and writing for fun.
For some bizarre reason, as students get older, writing is considered more of “a girl’s thing.” And so is reading “the classics,” which is a theme that pops up in the fourth Wimpy Kid book, “Dog Days.”
Maybe because there’s no braids, but that’s the most masculine-looking Anne I’ve ever seen.
Well, except for this Anne…
That’s me in the green dress at the beginning of my Prince Edward Island vacation last summer. For the record, I did take the costume off a few days after the photo and mostly traveled around the province in my street clothes. But before planning my family trip, I had never even heard of “Anne of Green Gables” or Lucy Maud Montgomery. I’m not sure why this is, because I had been aware of other “girl’s books” when I was a kid. I just didn’t read them.
So along with my wife, son and daughter, I listened to the first Anne book on CD during our endless drive through New Brunswick, Canada. By the time we reached the Confederation Bridge to PEI, I knew Anne was an imaginative, stubborn, ambitious, and melodramatic girl who had the courage to stand up to bullies — and was also someone who appreciated the nuances of every blade of grass. The story kept the attention of everyone in the car.
(I’m fully aware that listening to the audiobook gives me zero literary street cred, but reading at the wheel is far deadlier than texting. Marilla wouldn’t approve!)
When I arrived in PEI, I was blown away by how much a children’s book character can impact a community. Sure, there’s usually the obligatory museum or bronze statue at the birthplace of a famous author, but nothing like this.
At the Cavendish Figurines photo booth, tourists are encouraged to pose in group shots as Anne, almost like a scene from a Lucy Maud Montgomery-inspired science fiction movie. Co-owner Jeannette Arsenault told me that despite the availability of Gilbert (Anne’s boyfriend and hubby) and Matthew (Anne’s guardian) costumes, more than 90 percent of visitors want to be Anne. Even the guys.
Now, that’s quite the star power for a fictitious female character. You don’t see many boys rushing to be Belle, Princess Jasmine or Arielle at Disney World.
Anne Shirley is iconic. Her optimism and upbeat attitude is something that all Canadians are proud to identify with.
A friend of mine who actually has read “Anne of Green Gables” in its original book form told me she was extremely disappointed by the commercialism surrounding the character on the island. I couldn’t disagree more. Take a look at the marketing display on this refrigerator for Raspberry Cordial soda:
Merchants are not slapping Anne’s image on random items, such as toilet paper or breakfast cereal. There’s a literary basis to everything. Sure, the Avonlea Village theme park is rather pricey. But for fans who want to lip sync scenes of the book while they are being performed live, this is their “Rocky Horror Picture Show.”
A little bit down the road from Avonlea is the Fantazmagoric Museum of the Strange & Unusual, which also runs a snack bar and mini golf course. It is here where you will find the only remotely negative portrayal of Anne. And even so, it appears to be a tribute to her, in the satiric spirit of Mad Magazine or Wacky Package stickers:
It’s all fine and dandy when children’s books have life lessons, role models and spark discussion. But if the story doesn’t entertain first, then the book is going to have all the charm of a church sermon. I say this as a former fan of the Davey & Goliath animated series — was that claymation? — which was the only cartoon on TV on Sundays when I was growing up. As an adult, I realize that the producers were attempting to shove a syrupy lesson down my throat from the very first frame.
On a secular note, the Pixar movie “Cars” accomplishes the same feat. Kids will watch an endearing love story between a sportscar and a racing car with a goofy tow truck tossed in for comic relief. But us adults realize the movie is a warning not to ignore our personal relationships in the mad pursuit of our career goals — and a simple plea to appreciate the journey as much as the final destination.
“Anne of Green Gables” succeeds on this level. As a journalist and a stickler for spelling (please tell me there are no errors here), I love Anne’s militant defense of the “e” at the end of her name. I also resent the adults in her life who advise her to tone down her gregarious personality. But I appreciate the mindless sitcom plots, such as Anne accidentally giving Diana red wine instead of raspberry cordial, and Anne mistakenly dyeing her hair green in an attempt to get rid of her natural red.
Decades after Lucy Maud Montgomery came up with those stories, I saw them duplicated on The Flintstones (Pebbles’ birthday party guests accidentally got served “cactus juice”) and The Brady Bunch (Greg accidentally dyed his hair green, resulting in multiple embarrassing trips to his mom’s beauty parlor).
For the record, Anne is also a lot tougher than Greg, the star of the Wimpy Kid series. If author Jeff Kinney is managing to score a surprising 40 percent female readership, maybe the Anne books can increase their male market share. Bribing boys with sugar might not be the most ethical way to boost readership, but I suspect it might be the most effective:
(Darren Garnick is a freelance journalist and documentary filmmaker obsessed with travel and pop culture. He also happens to be fascinated with Little House on the Prairie, having seen practically every episode as a childhood TV ritual with his grandparents. If you have ever taken funny travel photos related to your favorite literature, please contact him at darrengarnick (at) gmail.com)