Smarty Pants? Smarty Skirts?

Here's something that's been gnawing at me: what do you think explains the preponderance of super-brilliant characters in kids books? And is there something funky going on along gender lines?

I ask this because Chestnut has been gripped by two books of late: Someday, Angeline, which is awesome, and The Report Card, which I haven't read but Chestnut assures me is also awesome. Both books concern girls who are geniuses, but who for various reasons hide their genius, intentionally scoring low on their report cards.

There are all sorts of things this makes me think: how strange it is that intentionally tanking a test is so transgressive. I wonder about the allure of the genius; so many kids books talk about people skipping grades or knowing so much more than the teacher, and kids eat it up and it seems odd to me, given the actual way school works which is that the genius kids tend to be, hmm, unloved is the best way to put it. Nonetheless, in kids books geniuses are apparently fascinating. I guess school is the only realm kids really have knowledge of, and it's compelling to think about someone who could master the realm.

But as Chestnut and I talked about it, we also ended up talking about boy geniuses in kids books. There's Encyclopedia Brown, there's Artemis Fowl—and what struck me was that they never hide their genius, and they use it to flourish outside the realm of school. They use it to dominate.

Know this: I am not accusing any authors of sexism. And even if I were, it wouldn't take away from the fact that these books are great. But I am trying to uncover what might be going on, invisibly.

I don't know if this is just these books I've encountered, or if it's more endemic to the form. What do you guys think? Girl geniuses, boy geniuses, in school or out—what does it all mean?

12 thoughts on “Smarty Pants? Smarty Skirts?

  1. You know, my first thought when I read this was Hermione, who certainly never hid her intelligence. On the other hand, she’s regarded as sort of insufferable because of it. I’m not sure how that implies, but something to muddy the waters…

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  2. True, but if you’ll allow me a quibble here: Hermione is not a genius, per se. She’s more really really smart, a grind sort, very intelligent but works hard to shine, which is not in the standard brilliant genius trope these others are exploring.

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  3. I think it’s the non-fantasy world parallel to the archetypal finding-out-you-have-extra-special-magic-powers trope we see so often. (So, Harry, not Hermione.) Usually these powers are a double-edged sword: the kid is made odd or unusual by them, but in the end also comes into his or her own by gaining mastery of them. So this provides the structure for tracking the kid’s move from innocence toward adulthood.

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  4. P.S. but it’s not just structure, it’s also that the person goes from being the ugly duckling to the beautiful swan; from exceptionally weird or out of favor or different, excluded by their social world, to all of those things in a good way, recognized and included for their talents.
    At its worst (I just read a couple of those Percy Jackson books and was not a fan) the superpowers provide the only reason for the kid attaining their new status of awesomeness. In the better books, the superpowers are sort of subordinate or parallel to points of character that are more mundane but also more realistic. (Again, Harry.)
    I really like Hermione because she is such a grind. A lot of smart or well-educated people have to work very hard for their knowledge, and I think that hard work gives you something besides the knowledge itself. But that’s another comment!

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  5. Here’s my totally unsupportable hypothesis: You know how kids always want to read (or watch) kids who are older than them? For example, I’m pretty sure the target market for seventeen magazine (if that still exists?) is about 12 years old.
    I think the kids who devour books are generally smart and like reading about the kids who are one step (as opposed to one grade level or age or whatever) ahead of them mentally. Most of us will never be a genius, but for the kid who is a bit of an outcast because the tests are written for the 95 or so percent of students who are not as smart as him/her–these protagonists are heroes.

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  6. You know, reading this kind of made my heart hurt. I am not a genius, but I was definitely the smart kid in school (nickname: Jane the Brain) – and I can remember the exact moment in sixth grade where I made the decision that I was not going to be that kid anymore. So I began to intentionally dumb down my vocabulary, act more “normal” (or what passed for normal in my upper middle class school), and yes, deliberately tank tests. My teachers didn’t know what to make of it, my parents couldn’t figure out what had happened, but I got a boyfriend. The things a middle school girl feels like she must do… I’m still recovering. (Obviously.)

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  7. Oh Jane! That’s horrible. I bet he wasn’t even a nice boyfriend either (if the way to get him was to erase yourself that tends not to work out in my experience).
    So you’re saying maybe one of the reasons these books are there is because it’s…true?
    Wow.

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  8. I’m just chiming in (late) to mention Charles Wallace Murray, of A Wrinkle In Time, who is a genius *and* has some vague superpowers/paranormal abilities. The Murray family is full of varying levels of genius. Dr. and Dr. (Mother and Father) are both, if not genius then certainly superintelligent. Meg is sort of a genius who has not come into her own. And Charles Wallace is beyond compare.
    L’Engle presents the genius quality as a definite social handicap in the kids, but assures readers that by the time they are grownups these kinds of kids find their way and become poised, loved, beautiful, etc. It’s surviving the crucible of childhood that is the key.

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  9. Thanks Maria, for getting to Wrinkle before I did.
    As to the original question: Don’t you think that most authors were on the smarter side in school, and suffered because of it? And don’t you think that they write about an alternate outcome that they would have wished for? That’s my guess.
    Also, it gives kids being ostracized for smarts the sense that somewhere in the universe, their brain and their personhood will be valued, and it will All Be Worth It. That’s what it did for my psyche, at least.

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  10. Oh, and Aja Killian, who is technically not a genius, but very very smart, doesn’t hide hers. But then she can’t, sort of.

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