By Duana Taha
For a certain type of outspoken, literary woman, Harriet M. Welsch is a touchstone figure. She is mouthy and candid and brutal in her pursuit of the truth. I mean, she has to be. She’s a spy. For the uninitiated, I’m talking about Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh, and if you’re reading this in a place that sells books, you should purchase that one to go along with this wonderful volume you’re holding.
I’m not saying an eleven-year-old Manhattan-based spy is my role model but, you know, listening to everyone talk about their names for years is a form of observation, and Harriet certainly taught me all about that—you see where I’m going here? She’s not not my role model.
She’s also not called Janie or Rachel or Beth or any of the names her classmates go by—she is Harriet. It’s distinctive. It’s not going to be mistaken for anyone else’s name. She’s always proud of it, and in fact, she even manufactures a middle initial. That’s how proud she is of her name. The fact that she doesn’t fit in with her peers is somehow kind of fitting. After all, she’s Harriet and they’re not.
The pattern repeats itself over and over with some of the most beloved books of the era. Beverly Cleary’s “Ramona” series has Ramona Quimby as its heroine, another girl with an unusual moniker. And being unusual—in Ramona’s case, outspoken and show-offy and jealous—and dealing with those traits, while not exactly loving them, is basically the theme of the series. It’s noted that her sister, Beezus—a clumsy nickname for Beatrice—doesn’t get off any easier. Beezus suffers from wearing hand-me-downs and sporting discount haircuts, and she sees herself as “other” as a result— but it’s her name that announces her non-typicalness up front, before her old clothes even enter the equation.
Over and over again, novels written for young people in the 1970s and 1980s proposed that probably having an unusual name was going to be hard and make you an unusual person but, hey, at least you’d get books written about you.
Anastasia Krupnik had a fear of moving to the suburbs and enjoyed talking to a plaster statue of Sigmund Freud. Judy Blume, whose canon figured largely in my understanding of being a kid, endorsed this theory in several books. In AreYou There God? It’s Me, Margaret, Margaret and her friends take on “sensational” names to help themselves grow up and become sophisticated: Alexandra, Veronica, Kimberly, and Mavis.
Deenie, the main character in the book of the same name, is supposed to be an actress or model, but we all know that’s not going to happen because she thinks those things are kind of lame, but more importantly because the girl’s name is Wilmadeene (no, really)! She’s obviously destined for unusual adventures, ones the Janets and Alices on her cheer-leading team couldn’t ever conceive of.
Boys don’t fare any better—the titular character of Superfudge is called Fudge because his real first name is Farley. If you’re going to be named Fudge—or Farley, for that matter—you’re not going to remain one of the crowd. It’s predestined. (Fascinatingly, especially considering all of the attention she gave to names, Judy Blume confessed to a friend of mine that, despite being the most beloved author of her time, none of her admiring fans had ever named a child Judy, after her. There’s a way to show you’re a truly devoted fan. . . .)
It was too late for the readers of these books, who, stats tell us, were overwhelmingly named Jennifer and Amanda and Nicole, to be original, name-wise. But these books created a generation of those obsessed with names, and as a result, were dissatisfied with their own (something that wouldn’t manifest until almost a generation later)—who understood the power of a distinctive label for a distinctive person. It was too late, maybe, for their own names to be descriptive of how unusual they might be, but not too late at all for them to become fascinated by names so that they wouldn’t inflict such ordinary labels on the next generation.
It’s worth mentioning that the once-beloved Sweet Valley High series had Elizabeths and Jessicas and Lilas, but let me be the first to draw a line between the names in the books and their perceived relevance today. Who is more likely to be interesting to read about? Liz…or Anastasia?