Thursday, January 13, 2011

Kids Off The Couch: Female Role Models for 2011

True Grit & Newbery Award Winner "Moon Over Manifest"

We're full of New Year's Resolutions about leading a more intentional life in 2011, and have already been inspired by two new fictional heroines. Mattie Ross is the fourteen year-old heroine of Joel and Ethan Coen's True Grit, which is in the hunt for Oscar nominations even while it has outsold most modern Westerns after just twenty days in theaters. Abilene Tucker is the twelve year-old heroine of "Moon Over Manifest," a colorful work of historical fiction that won the 2011 Newbery Award this week. Both stories are set in the past and feature girls who set out on a quest, using their brains and bravery to overcome unlikely obstacles. The word pluck is out of vogue, but it might swing back into the lexicon as easily as Mattie swings herself up on her horse. The success of the movie and the book indicate to us that old fashioned storytelling can win modern hearts and minds, and that portends well for the New Year.

True Grit: Newcomer Hailee Sternfeld plays a fourteen year-old who's out to level justice against the man who killed her father and delivers her idiomatic lines of dialogue at a rapid pace, holding her own against formidable actors such as Matt Damon, Jeff Bridges and Josh Brolin. She hires crusty Marshal Cogburn, or "Rooster", (Bridges) to chase down the elusive Tom Chaney (Brolin), and her determination carries the film to an astonishingly emotional end. Along the way, a rogue Texas Ranger named LeBoeuf (Damon) accompanies them on their cold, dangerous journey into Indian country. With sumptuous scenery, cinematography by the great Roger Deakins, and a hilarious smattering of character actors, the film appeals to everyone in the family who is over the age of 11 (something we might not get to say about a Coen brothers film again). There's just a little cussin' alongside the stuff of a great Western: original characters riddled with conflict, and a plot shot through with bears, snakes and horses. True Grit works for boys and girls who can handle some strong images of violence -- Mattie witnesses a hanging, LeBoeuf's tooth is pulled out by Rooster, there are several gunfights and a horse dies -- though we can report that no violence is gratuitous. Joel and Ethan Coen also directed No Country for Old Men andFargo; the film is rated PG-13 for violence and runs 110 minutes. Film is still in theaters.

Moon Over Manifest: Just this past Monday, the American Library Association announced this year's Newbery Award winner, written by first-time novelist Clare Vanderpool. Abilene Tucker is only twelve when she gets off a train on her own in a town called Manifest, where she has been sent for safekeeping by her father. After she finds a hidden cache of items she thinks are her father's, a diviner uses each item as a talisman that helps Abilene see into the past. The story takes place in Depression-era Kansas but, through the seer's visions, Abilene is taken back to 1918 and World War One and is able to put together clues to solve a mystery that the residents of Manifest would rather forget. Abilene is a girl without a home, who makes new friends as she finds a place to settle, and the author explores rich historical events from coal mining to the Ku Klux Klan to immigration. We raced through the novel on our iPad (it is sold out already in local bookstores) so grab it from Amazonand prepare for a lively winter read. We recommend it for kids over ten -- and think it would make a great book to listen to on a long car ride.

Extra Credit: The Coen brothers adapted True Grit from a novel by Charles Portis and the 1969 film adaptation starred John Wayne, who won an Oscar for his portrayal of Rooster. In that version, Maddie Ross was played by a 22-year-old Kim Darby, who'd already had a baby at the time she played Mattie. Hailee Steinfeld turned fourteen in December and lives in Thousand Oaks, CA.