Spunky Girl Spies and Tries (To Keep Hoping)


Harriet M. Welch.
Ramona Quimby.
Jo March.
Trixie Belden.
Flavia de Luce.
Nancy Drew.
Hazel Kaplansky.
Star Mackie.

One could go on listing spunky girl heroines, wannabe spies and detectives, and just generally nonconformist and stubborn females in children’s fiction for a long time. (In fact, Jen Robinson made just such a list of 200 “cool girls from children’s literature” a few years ago.)

I read Hope Is a Ferris Wheel by Robin Herrera and The Spy Catchers of Maple Hill by Megan Frazer Blakemore back to back, and the female protagonists, Star and Hazel, will forever be associated and somewhat confused with one another in my mind. Star and Hazel definitely fit into the cool, spunky female character category. If you read one of these two books and like it, you’ll probably like the other.

Hazel Kaplansky of Spy Catchers is a girl sleuth who models her detective activities on the famous Nancy Drew. Set in 1953, Spy Catchers of Maple Hill has as its historical background and key conflict the Cold War and the Red Scare of the 1950’s. Hazel is determined to find and expose the “Commie” spies that she is sure are conspiring to infiltrate and destroy Maple Hill, Vermont—if not the entire United States.

Hazel is relentless and somewhat arrogant in her search for truth, justice, and the American way. “What’s the point of modesty?” she says at one point to her friend and fellow detective, Samuel. “I’ll be modest when other folks start to realize how remarkable I am.”

By the end of the book Hazel has come to a few realizations herself—and received a bit of a comedown when she finds out that her unfounded suspicions have hurt good people. However, the last few pages of the story show Hazel, as determined and undaunted as ever, spinning new theories and visualizing herself as “Hazel Kaplansky, star student, holder of knowledge, solver of mysteries, and future double agent.”

Star Mackie in Hope Is a Ferris Wheel is just as stubborn in her sense of right and wrong and her quest to make sense of her world as Hazel. Star is a little younger than Hazel, and in spite of Star’s somewhat dysfunctional family life, she’s a bit more innocent than Hazel. Star’s father disappeared when she was a baby. Her mother says her dad is a no-good bum and won’t let Star even communicate with him. Her sister Winter, whom Star idolizes, has been kicked out of school for writing horror stories with lots of “characters in them [that] have the misfortune of dying horrible deaths, like having all of the blood explode out of their bodies” and a “family of inbred mutant cannibals” who happen to have the same names as her classmates.

The whole family, Star, her mom, and Winter, have moved from Oregon to California in search of a fresh start, and their home is “the pink-tinted trailer with the flamingo hot glued to the roof” in Treasure Trailers trailer park. Star (like Hazel) is unpopular with her new classmates because of her trailer park origins and general lack of conformity, and so she tries starting a club to make new friends. But Star, again like Hazel, is rather bossy and stubborn, and friendships are hard to initiate.

I liked the fact that both of these books feature imperfect young protagonists, and not everything is resolved in the end of either book. Hazel doesn’t become subdued and older but wiser. Star doesn’t really connect with her father, and her new friends are, well, a little flaky and unreliable. Nevertheless, as Star would say in imitation of Emily Dickinson, “Hope is a Ferris Wheel. . . Hope becomes A Thing/ That, When you’re getting Off,/ You take With you to Bring.”

There’s still hope for Hazel Kaplansky and Star Mackie to grow into strong young women with wisdom tempered by experience. And they’re the kind of girls who will experience a lot because they aren’t going to sit around and wait for life to come to them. If you’re a fan of Harriet the Spy or Flavia de Luce, you might very well enjoy either or both of these middle grade novels.

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