When did genius kids get “hot”?
Monday, March 30th, 2009
Fictional genius kids used to be realistically frumpy for the most part. A Wrinkle in Time’s Meg and Charles Wallace were not fashion plates. When we first meet Esme of J.D. Salinger’s For Esme—With Love and Squalor, she is wet and ratlike.
Here, to take another instance, is the original 1976 cover of Very Far Away From Anywhere Else by Ursula K. LeGuin, one of my favorite precociousness tragedies. Note bizarre heads-superimposed-on-violin illustration (forgive terrible scan). Note girl on the left: This is Natalie Fields, stern teenage composer who is so obsessed with music that she has no time for love and is forever shouting “Bah!” in the face of opposition. Note that she is kinda fat and thick of nose. (“People wouldn’t call her beautiful, because she was stocky and had a severe expression.”)
Now, note boy on the right: Soulful eyes, nice lips, but also substantially schnozzed. This is Owen Griffiths, self-described as a puny five-foot-seven, hopelessly unathletic, with curly hair that “sticks out all over my head” despite his daily assaults on it with a hairbrush. Owen is a combo math genius and mystical-world creator and, although his obstreperous passion for kindred-spirit Natalie doesn’t quite work out, she…actually, I’m not going to reveal the ending because it’s worth reading, whatever your age.
Fast forward to this cover of the 2004 re-issue. Granted, the genius kids are now facing away from us and could conceivably be truly hideous, but check out Owen’s new V-shaped torso. Clearly, he’s abandoned his detailed creation of the imaginary land called “Thorn” (an autocracy that’s evolved into a socialist nation) so that he can swim 150 laps of butterfly every day. He also seems to have saved up enough money for Japanese hair straightening. No way is this guy five-seven unless that Gilmore Girl-ified version of Natalie is four-foot-two. Natalie Fields—who, you’ll recall is “stocky”— does not walk around barefooted in a wife-beater! Nor does she have perfect upper-arm definition, unless her beloved piano now doubles as a Pilates Universal Reformer machine!
In short: Very Far Away from Accurate. And Very Intimidating.