Girl of the Year 2009: Chrissa

Author: Mary Casanova
Illustrator: Richard Jones


Chrissa Maxwell and her family have just moved to Minnesota from Iowa, to live with her grandmother and her pair of miniature llamas. Her grandfather died a few months ago, and the big house is too lonely. Plus, Chrissa's mother, a doctor, can work at a larger hospital. Chrissa misses her old home, especially on the first day of school in her new fourth-grade class. There's a Valentine's Day party, and Chrissa only gets one card, despite the fact that she knows the teacher put her name on the list. The other three girls at her table, Tara, Jadyn, and Sonali, snicker cruelly about that, and generally treat her like dirt. She considers telling her teacher,  but doesn't want to be a tattle-tale.

Back at home, Chrissa is surprised to get a call from Sonali--and skeptical. Sonali asks to come over, and Chrissa agrees cautiously. When she arrives, Chrissa can see that Sonali's mother is forcing her to be there, and to apologize...and to give Chrissa back her Valentine cards. She'd stolen them at Tara's insistence. Chrissa declines to tell her family--her grandmother has enough sadness, and her parents are busy, and her brother always has his nose in an astronomy book, off in his own world. Over the weekend, Tara and Jadyn happen to see Chrissa with her grandmother and the llamas, and the ensuing conversation her grandmother gives serves to give the mean girls fodder for later teasing. Chrissa starts making plans to be homeschooled, like her cousins in Texas. 

On Monday, Chrissa's father is a special guest. He's a potter, and has made two hundred bowls for a charity supporting Sunrise House, a shelter for women and children. The students at the school will paint the bowls. Chrissa's also asked to turn in the swim team registration forms (she and Tyler are joining and so is a girl named Gwen who is also snubbed by the mean girls--Chrissa decides to befriend her). But the mean girls steal the forms and also stab Chrissa with a pencil hard enough to break the graphite off in her back (well, hello there, assault and battery!). They turn in the packet minus one form: Chrissa's. She has to sit out practice. 

But she does jump in the pool when, during free swim, the mean girls trick Gwen, a new swimmer, into the deep end. Chrissa jumps in with a life ring and gets Gwen safely out. The mean girls pretend it was all an accident, but Chrissa knows better. The mean girls even have the gall to tease Gwen for crying, although Sonali seems to be shaken up by the fact that Gwen actually came close to drowning. The next day at school the mean girls light into Chrissa and Gwen. Chrissa stands up the them, but it does little good. At swim practice, her own brother (Tyler) pulls a prank on her, and it's obvious that the mean girls put him up to it. That night, Sonali calls to apologize, and the says she wants to get to know Chrissa. She ends up coming over the Friday to spend the night, and the girls actually get along really well. Chrissa gives Sonali a knitting lesson, and they talk a lot. But then Sonali gets a phone call, and has to go, saying her cousins are visiting. Chrissa can tell she's lying, and figures that Tara called her.

The next Monday, Chrissa and Gwen start talking and it ends up in Chrissa trimming Gwen's bangs with Tara showing up to "help." Gwen's bangs end up a mess thanks to Tara, and Chrissa is blamed. Chrissa, Sonali, Tara, and Jadyn end up in the principal's office with their parents. Tara and Jadyn blame Chrissa while Sonali claims she didn't see anything (Gwen had her eyes closed for the bang trimming, so can't say who did the deliberately bad cut). Chrissa ends up telling everything to her mom, who lets Chrissa stay home from school the next day (Friday).

That night is the fundraiser. During the event, a resident of Sunrise House tells her story--how her husband lost his job, their savings dwindled, and then her husband abandoned her and her daughter. Sunrise House gave them a safe place to stay, and has helped them find an apartment. Her daughter Gwen. Chrissa is sitting near Gwen, who is nervous about her mom's speech, and gives her a reassuring hand to squeeze. To the surprise of both girls, Sonali slips into an empty seat by Gwen, and hands her a note apologizing. The girls spend Saturday together, making headbands to wear together (to hide Gwen's bangs). At school Monday, Sonali talks to the teacher and tells him what's been going on. He agrees to change the seating assignments, separating Tara and Jadyn and letting Gwen sit with Chrissa and Sonali (a boy named Joel joins the table too, declaring he likes his seatmates but that he won't wear a headband). Tara and Jadyn are furious, but their power is waning, while the friendship Chrissa, Gwen, and Sonali now share is growing stronger.

Real Girls, Real Letters

"Scared" is encouraged to stick up for a bullied girl at her school, even though her own friends are the ones being cruel, because it's the right thing to do. "A Victim" is advised to not take any flak from a classmate who sarcastically "compliments" her, and to project confidence. "Miserable" is told to get support from her parents and teachers to get a bully to leave her alone, and to escalate to the principal if necessary. "Frustrated" is told to talk with her friend who's letting the lack of attention from her parents make her a bully, and to not put up with rotten behavior. "On-and-off Friend" is told that she needs to step back from a toxic friendship if the other won't treat her right. "Afraid" is advised that she has to tell a responsible adult about the neighbor boy who beats her up, and warned that she'll probably need to stay away from if he doesn't shape up.


Dedicated to "every girl who finds her voice and makes a difference."

Special thanks are given to Patti Kelsey Criswell, MSW; Dr. Micahel Obsatz, and Susan Kovacs.

Chrissa is eleven months younger than her brother. One of my good friends is eleven months younger than her sister. Her sister was born in January and she was born in December of the same year--two tax deductions!

In 2009, Valentine's Day was a Saturday. Having the class celebrate the Friday before (Chrissa's first day is a Friday) makes perfect sense.

Jadyn has a habit of raising her voice at the end of a sentence? So that everything she says sounds like a question?

Chrissa's grandparents go/went by Nana and Grandpa, which is how my daughters and my niece and nephew know my parents.

Chrissa didn't have any swim lessons until she was five. Maybe it's because I live in a state that borders the ocean, but that seems late to me. My older daughter started formal lessons when she three, and both girls are comfortable in the water, although the eighteen-month-old only likes to "swim" by laying down in the water across our forearms for a few minutes at a time before being held more traditionally.

Chrissa's middle name is Marie, and she's left-handed. I'm curious to see if the girl who plays her in the movie is left-handed too.

One of the llamas is pregnant.

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