The Relatability of Gertie’s Leap to Greatness by Grace Kendall
This past spring, on a Saturday afternoon, I texted my father down in Miami just to check in. He’s approaching eighty and lives alone, except for the cats, and I just wanted to be sure they hadn’t eaten him. So I write, “How’s your weekend going?”
To which he replies, “Lousy.”
And I’m thinking either the Miami Heat had lost or our downstairs neighbors started smoking weed again.
But it wasn’t either of those things. “I’m reading Gertie,” he said.
Now, my father has never read any of the books I’ve edited. He was referring to Gertie’s Leap to Greatness by debut author Kate Beasley and with illustrations by Caldecott Honoree Jillian Tamaki.
“What scene are you on?” I ventured.
He texted back: “We just drove by the housey house, and Career Day is coming up. That Gertie is a gutsy gal.”
And there’s a pause before he texts again: “I’ve been sitting here crying since lunchtime.”
I suppose I should back up and start from the beginning. Because every great book has a great beginning, right? Well, here goes:
“The bullfrog was only half dead, which was perfect.”
So begins Gertie’s story, set in the cotton fields of coastal Alabama. As this first line suggests, Gertie Reece Foy tends to get herself into trouble.
Her two best friends—Jean “the Genius” Geller and Junior Parks, Jr.—are always her accomplices. Her daddy, Frank Foy, works on an oil rig, so her great-aunt Rae takes care of her at home.
Her mother, Rachel Collins, also lives in their small town. But she has never had a relationship with her daughter. Rachel left when Gertie was a baby, and Gertie has been just fine with that. There’s no love lost, just a simmering curiosity. In Kate’s words: “All her life, Gertie had collected pieces of her mother the way other people collected little spoons or bracelet charms or Jessica Walsh action figures.”
But two days before school starts, Gertie sees a For Sale sign stuck dirt-deep in Rachel Collins’s front lawn. Her mother was leaving town and hadn’t bothered to tell her. This kicks off in Gertie dueling desires: to smugly yell “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out,” but also to draw her mother’s attention, to prove to Rachel that Gertie is worth sticking around for.
So Gertie comes up with a plan—more than a plan—a mission: to become the Greatest Fifth Grader in the Universe. But, as with any perfect plan, there’s a hitch. Its name is Mary Sue Spivey. She’s the new girl in school, and she wants to be the best fifth grader, too!
There has been a lot of buzz about this book. Entertainment Weekly likened Gertie to Ramona Quimby. And School Library Journal suggested Gertie was for older fans of Clementine. It’s a dream come true to have your book uttered in the same sentence as such literary greats.
But I suspect what early readers have responded to is Kate Beasley’s surprising knack for picking out the details in human life that matter: like the slightest hint of lemon Gertie tastes in her Twinkie filling every morning; the comforting weight of a frog in a shoe box before show-and-tell; or the promise of a parent’s unconditional love.
And then there’s this book’s relentless sense of humor. I giggle-snorted all the way through. And I will never look at green peas the same way again. (You’ll know why when you read the book.)
To quote Julie Danielson’s recent piece, “Absent Parents, Dependable Robots,” in Kirkus Reviews: “To call Gertie spunky would be an understatement; she’s full of fire.”
And while I bought this book for all those qualities and more, I love this book for a different reason entirely.
Gertie isn’t the only character struggling for her parent’s attention. Turns out her nemesis, Mary Sue Spivey, has a distant father, too. He’s a big shot movie director with more time for his star actors back in California than for his own daughter. And there’s young Audrey, whom Gertie and Aunt Rae babysit every afternoon, because her parents are busy working.
Each of these children is reaching for her parent in a different way. Gertie wants to be loved. Mary Sue wants to be appreciated. Audrey wants to be included. There is a distance, real or metaphorical, between every child and her parent. It’s a sliding scale of proximity and intimacy.
But that is true for each of us in this room. At some point in our lives, we have yearned for our parents—for their time and attention and love. Most of us get those things. And some of us, like Gertie, don’t.
And it is precisely this relatable, even universal yearning that keeps me coming back to this book. Because while the physical distance between them is quite small (they live in the same town), the emotional space between Gertie and her mother is as vast and uncertain as the future of a half-dead bullfrog in a shoe box.
We chose the word leap for the title because this reaching for her mother is Gertie’s first real risk. You can even see that tension reflected in Jillian Tamaki’s stunning cover: Gertie is mid-stride in everything.
She is beginning to learn what it means for a friend’s affections to be fickle, when to put herself out there, and when to keep her true self safe inside. And, most important, Gertie is figuring out who deserves her love. A skill we would all like to master.
A couple of days after my father and I first texted about Gertie, I gave him a call. He had finished the novel and loved it. He told me he identified most with Frank Foy. Which was not surprising to me, since, like Frank, my father had raised me and my sister as a single parent. We talked about how Gertie’s childhood was similar and different from mine—and how reading the book made each of us feel.
I suspect young readers will be having similar conversations with friends or parents or teachers in October, when the book reaches them. But if they only talk about the zombie frog or the time Gertie almost puked at school or how Roy got his broken arm, I’ll be just as happy.
When we give books to each other, we are—on the simplest level—trying to share an experience. To become closer. But of the many books I have given him over the years, it was reading Gertie’s Leap to Greatness that made the distance between me and my father that much smaller.
And I hope it has a similar effect on the young readers in your lives.
Grace Elizabeth Kendall is an editor at FSG Books for Young Readers/Macmillan. She publishes stories for all ages, including the forthcoming Lou Lou and Pea series by Jill Diamond and Lesley Vamos; Mama Africa! by National Book Award winner Kathryn Erskine and Charly Palmer; You Bring the Distant Near by Mitali Perkins and her first picture book, Gifts for Abuela, to be illustrated by Pura Belpré Honoree Sara Palacios; Betty by Ilyasah Shabazz and Renée Watson; and the Jasmine Toguchi series by Debbi Michiko Florence and Elizabet Vukovic, among many others.