This 2013 feature for The Walrus proves that a the story of smart, average Caitlyn Pinto is worth reading about.

[[{“fid”:”4186″,”view_mode”:”default”,”fields”:{“format”:”default”,”field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]”:””,”field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]”:””},”type”:”media”,”attributes”:{“style”:”width: 400px; height: 263px; margin-left: 10px; margin-right: 10px; float: right;”,”class”:”media-element file-default”},”link_text”:null}]]Katrina Onstad, “Portrait of a Ten-Year-Old Girl,” The Walrus, October 2013

By Prajakta Dhopade 

I remember being 10 years old. It was a time of unwarranted confidence, before self-consciousness and self-limitation existed. I was a voracious reader. I was quiet, and not the most popular girl in school, but I wanted to be a scientist when I grew up, so it was all going to be OK. I thought I was pretty ordinary. 

Good feature writers can make enthralling what might seem at first ordinary and unworthy of our attention. Katrina Onstad’s 2013 profile, “Portrait of a Ten-Year-Old Girl,” delves into the life of precocious Caitlyn Pinto, a “happy girl and a known butt slapper.” Pinto didn’t develop an app at seven years old, nor did she start a charity for homeless youth; she’s just a smart, average girl, and Onstad’s comprehensive piece, rife with telling details and analysis, proves that she’s still worth reading about. 

The story invites comparison to Susan Orlean’s famous 1992 Esquire article, “The American Male at Age Ten.” At first, Onstad’s feature follows the formula that Orlean employed, starting with a list of facts about Pinto, then describing the upper-middle-class Toronto neighbourhood she grew up in and its socio-economic implications. They both emphasize that 10 is a period right before the beginnings of a transition into adolescence. Onstad takes a more analytical standpoint than Orlean, which effectively makes “Portrait” more poignant and informative. 

Early in the story Onstad discusses G. Stanley Hall, a developmental psychologist who theorized that “adolescence is a time of ‘storm and stress.’” In including this, Onstad sets up the rest of the article about the girl’s wholesome and structured life as the calm before the storm, a snapshot of Pinto before an uncertain future of tumultuous change. “Ten is in between,” she writes. Pinto is in a liminal stage. “Her body is still a child’s body, but softening. Curves are approaching,” she writes. I cringed at that second sentence when I first read it. Was “approaching” really the word Onstad was looking for? After some consideration, I realized that it had another meaning. “Approaching” curves invoke the image of a path of twists and turns for young Pinto. Curves are approaching, and with them, the storm. 

Onstad tells us what this storm entails for girls like Pinto. “Girls have elicited a specific type of hand-wringing,” she says. She cites therapist Mary Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia to relay the depression, eating disorders and drugs that are in store in modern girls’ “dark, inert futures.” In positing this fate, Onstad creates a sense of foreboding in readers. Is this what will happen to bubbly, happy Pinto? She follows this with some optimism: the workforce has become a better place for women. “It’s as if Ophelia’s revival means Hamlet’s death,” she writes And: “Ophelia is doing okay but Hamlet is doing better.” 

Onstad revels in Pinto’s innocence and youth. Her efforts to understand the girl and her generation become a part of the story, likely appealing to The Walrus’s bewildered older readership, but she makes sure to not deprive us of the child’s wisdom. “These moments of introspection don’t happen often, and perhaps I project more meaning onto them than is there, sensing loss because I, in my middle age, know how fleeting this breathless moment is, even if Caitlyn doesn’t,” writes Onstad. 

Onstad then shares Pinto’s recollection of what you’d think would be a landmark event in a 10-year-old girl’s life in 2013: meeting Justin Bieber in a backstage meet-and-greet. “‘You don’t know what’s going on, and then—click!’ She makes a camera-snapping gesture. ‘Done.’” The moment is quick and inconsequential. Pinto’s straightforward and minimalist response that Onstad includes is important in showing the fleeting nature of so-called big moments in her young life. 

Growing up isn’t the only worry affecting young Pinto. Onstad is very thorough; she captures all aspects of a multifaceted girl. She discusses race (Pinto is Indian), wealth, sexuality (a big one in Orlean’s piece as well) and, of course, the future. The way she dissects Pinto’s world reveals how complex the factors influencing this little girl’s life really are and provides stark contrast to the child’s simple, innocent worldview. 

Onstad allows her worry and affection for naive Pinto to gleam through. She ends the profile with the image of a girl and her horse, the one certainty that Pinto hopes to have in the future—a connection with an animal. “I want to freeze her in that open air, and keep at bay the inevitable recognition that this child self is passing, minute by minute, until it is gone forever,” she writes. Her eloquent conclusion leaves readers with a saccharine impression of Pinto’s child-like optimism. I hope Onstad revisits Pinto in the future and lets us know how she weathered the storm. 

[[{“fid”:”4179″,”view_mode”:”default”,”fields”:{“format”:”default”,”field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]”:””,”field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]”:””},”type”:”media”,”link_text”:null,”attributes”:{“height”:”512″,”width”:”342″,”style”:”width: 100px; height: 150px; margin-left: 10px; margin-right: 10px; float: left;”,”class”:”media-element file-default”}}]]Prajakta Dhopade is a journalism student at Ryerson University. Her work has appeared in The Grid, Queen’s Park Briefing and Anokhi Magazine. 

Students and non-students alike may write a Great Canadian Literary Journalism story on a worthy piece of literary journalism/long form/feature writing/reportage. If interested, please contact Bill Reynolds.

Illustratio photo by Phae, via Flickr.