Anastasia Krupnik Is the Neurotic YA Heroine You Forgot You Loved

Photo: Raydene Salinas

Before there was Daria, before there were Liz Lemon’s flashbacks to young Liz Lemon, there was Lois Lowry’s Anastasia Krupnik, a brassy Jewish 10-year-old with brown hair, glasses, and a little pink wart on her finger. The protagonist of Lowry’s nine-book series (the first, Anastasia Krupnik, came out in 1979, the ninth, Anastasia Absolutely, in 1995) lived in a Boston suburb with her painter mother, Harvard poetry-professor father, pesky younger brother, and goldfish named Frank. Anastasia was both very outspoken and (at times) deeply introspective; she had a distaste for liver as well as a crush on Laurence Olivier. Obviously, The Giver and Number the Stars are the books for which Lowry’s most widely known at this point, but for a certain sort of neurotic child who grew up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, Anastasia was an important literary heroine. Imagine her as Roz Chast or Nora Ephron as a fifth-grader.

Here’s the type of stuff Anastasia got into: In Anastasia, Ask Your Analyst, she buys a bust of Freud at a garage sale, and starts confiding to him about her mom issues, as well as the fact that her science-project gerbils have multiplied from 2 to 11 (“Sigmund, I have too many gerbils!”). In Anastasia on Her Own, she and her pipe-smoking father create a “Non-Sexist Housekeeping Schedule” to help her frazzled mother, which ends hilariously with Anastasia cooking a Ragout de Veau aux Champignons for her father’s ex-girlfriend and her own middle-school crush; and in one of the most bizarre tomes, Anastasia at This Address, she meets a wealthy 28-year-old SWM named Septimus Smith via the New York Review of Books personals section, with whom she corresponds; he ends up (spoiler alert!) being her best friend’s uncle. Anastasia was everything — which is why it was very exciting to see Lowry’s tweet this summer that the series would be re-released starting in January. When I had the chance to chat with Lowry over the summer about her Giver-related goings on, I snuck in a few Anastasia questions.

So where did Anastasia come from?
At the time that I was writing them, Jimmy Carter was president. His daughter Amy was a kid, and I’d see Amy in the news, and she was always being obnoxious. There was this one time when this very solemn interviewer asked 10-year-old Amy, “Do you have one message to give to the children of the world?” and she said, “No!” I actually pictured Anastasia looking like Amy Carter, with blonde-red hair, but the illustrator doing the cover wasn’t privy to my imagination.

Did you have any Anastasia in you as a young girl?
No, I was a very, very shy, introverted child; probably Anastasia represented the kid I wish I could have been,the kind of mouthy, self-confident child that I never was. She was my fantasy and my other self.

How do you think 2014-era tweens will relate to her?
Well, what they’ve done is taken out some now politically incorrect things, and also — you may not remember, or you may remember because you may have been shocked by it as a kid — the word shit appears in the first book. At any rate, the new edition won’t have the word shit in it. And also, I’m sad about this in a way (this was nostalgic for me, because this was inspired by my father), but in the early Anastasia books, her father, Myron, comes home and pours himself a beer and lets Anastasia sip the foam. In the re-released books, she doesn’t sip it. Parents these days would be outraged. I decided that was a battle I couldn’t win. And Anastasia, Ask Your Analyst: The publishers didn’t think this title would appeal to kids today. They asked my permission to change it to Anastasia Off Her Rocker, and I said okay kind of reluctantly. But then I am excited because it’s being republished in England, as well, and in England back in the day they made a change that is kind of amusing: There’s a scene in which Anastasia is talking about or thinking about her friend Robert’s mother who wears something called “Fat Fanny Pantyhose.” In England apparently “Fat Fanny” means something obscene, so they gave it a dumb name. Anyway, they are putting Fat Fanny back in.

There are nine books altogether, and the plan is to redo all of them. My guess is that they are waiting to see how the first ones do. When I mentioned on Twitter and also on Facebook that they would be republished, there was a great wash of women who said, “Yay!” A lot of the girls who read it back in the day now have daughters that same age.

Your favorite Anastasia book?
Anastasia’s Chosen Career, the one where she goes into Boston and takes a two-week modeling course. One of the girls in the class is a black girl named Henrietta, who tells Anastasia: “You call me that and you die.” She goes by Henry, and she and Anastasia become good friends. At that point, it was fun for me to create a new character; I had been dealing with the same people over and over again.

Did you decide to end the series?
No. After the three spinoff books about Sam, Anastasia’s younger brother, and the ninth Anastasia book, the publisher said it was time to stop, that they were not selling as well as they used to. Their time had come and gone. I had a tenth book partly written, but I put it on pause. It’s still on my computer. If people love this republication, maybe I would finish it. It would be fun to go back to her. I’ve been re-reading the early books in order to write the introductions and that kind of revved up my enthusiasm. She’s now very popular in France, apparently.

Do you get a lot of Anastasia-obsessives contacting you?
The Anastasia days predated email, but one of my favorite letters I’ve ever gotten came from a kid who told me that she loved the Anastasia books; she loved how Anastasia had to take care of her baby brother all the time, because her mother worked. The funny thing was, none of what she described in her letter was in the book. Clearly, this was what was going on in her own life — she had to take care of her brother because her mother worked. Anastasia didn’t do any of those things. But it was a neat example of how a child can so deeply enter a world of a book that it molds into her own life.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

The Neurotic YA Heroine You Forgot You Loved