Jeannette Arsenault runs an "Anne of Green Gables" souvenir shop with enough knickknacks to make eBay jealous. She sells "Anne of Green Gables" potato chips, strawberry jam and raspberry cordials, along with more than a few $300 ceramic figures (though the $50,000 Anne concrete statue standing guard outside the shop on Canada's Prince Edward Island isn't for sale). "It's amazing how Anne has taken on a life of her own," Arsenault says. "Yesterday a man was in here and wanted to know how long she had lived." That's not a hard mistake to make, considering the store wall plastered with hundreds of photographs of Anne Shirley impersonators, most of them preteen girls and at least one cross-dressing 94-year-old man. If you stand around too long, Arsenault will get you, too. When a reporter came in to ask about Canada's most famous literary heroine, Arsenault rushed to a closet that holds Anne dresses in 20 sizes and dumped it on his (OK, my) shoulders, plopped a hat with two red braids on my head and made me pose for a photo. I could hear the girls giggling all the way over in the doll aisle.
"Anne of Green Gables" has long provided the setting for one of North America's biggest (and sweetest) literary destinations, but now it's ascending to a whole new level of kitsch. This scrappy orphan turns 100 this year, and the centennial festivities are absolutely epic: two different Anne musicals, an Anne fair and a parade earlier this month on Prince Edward Island. That "Anne" has survived so long—and, with 50 million copies sold, so strong—is a small miracle considering the state of young-adult literature. It's rare to find a best seller with a strong heroine anymore, in large part because, although girls will read books about boys, boys won't go near a girl's book, no matter how cool she is. Even in Stephenie Meyer's "Twilight" series, the strong, grounded Bella is willing to chuck it all for the love of her vampire boyfriend. "The literary smart girl is still showing up in literature, but she's often the sidekick," says Trinna Frever, an "Anne of Green Gables" scholar. "It is a reflection of a culture that's placing less value on intelligence, and also treating intelligence as a stigmatized quality." As smart as Anne is, you aren't likely to find her in a classroom, either. She has survived largely through mothers who pass the book on to their daughters.
For those of you who've been too busy with "Harry Potter" to bother with "Anne," a primer: "Anne of Green Gables" opens with the Cuthberts, Marilla and Matthew, elderly siblings who want to take in a boy to help with the farm work. But the orphanage sends Anne by mistake. Marilla reluctantly adopts her anyway, and the novel is a wholesome parable about how girls are not only as good as boys, they're better, at least when it comes to wit and intelligence. Lucy Maud Montgomery wrote eight Anne books—the last was published in 1939, but the pigtailed farm girl still seems modern. She's witty and intelligent, like a Jane Austen protagonist. She turns down several marriage proposals and won't settle when it comes to love (like Carrie Bradshaw); she's stubbornly optimistic (Hillary Clinton) and unapologetically fashionable (Audrey Hepburn). And she's funny. She accidentally dyes her hair green—a move straight from the Lucille Ball handbook—and also sneaks into a neighbor's house, only to get stuck falling through the roof. That gag was recycled by Teri Hatcher on "Desperate Housewives."
Anne's universality stems from Montgomery's own fascination with popular culture. She based Anne on fashion photos—a 1903 model was the source of Anne's beauty—and fictional stories in family magazines, says Irene Gammel, author of the new book "Looking for Anne of Green Gables." Although the novels aren't autobiographical, there's plenty of Montgomery in them. "She was pretty much an orphan herself," says Kate Macdonald, one of Montgomery's grandchildren. "She lost her mother when she was young and was raised by her grandparents." She wrote the first "Gables" book when she was single, and after it was published she married Ewan Macdonald, a Presbyterian minister, in 1911. The couple moved to Ontario, where she kept writing. But her stories turned darker. The last book chronologically, "Rilla of Ingleside," is set during World War I, and Anne loses a son on the battlefield.
With Montgomery's global success, the books transformed Prince Edward Island into a tourist hot spot. The Japanese are among the most ardent Anne-maniacs—they even plan weddings in the room where Montgomery was married. One of the major stops is Avonlea Village, a kind of "Anne" Disneyland, but instead of wearing Mickey Mouse ears, the fans put on straw hats with long red braids. "We play 'Anne' games at home, and we always pretend we're Anne," says Lydia Lambert, 12, of Norwell, Mass., who is visiting with her two younger sisters. "I've read 'Harry Potter' a thousand times, and I've read 'Anne' a thousand times, but Anne is more real. She acts like a normal person." There's been so much Anne merchandising on Prince Edward Island that the Montgomery heirs set up a panel to vet the licensing. The group said no to Anne shot glasses, ashtrays and beer mugs. But they allowed Penguin to commission an "Anne of Green Gables" prequel for the anniversary, written by Canadian young-adult novelist Budge Wilson—it received a first-run printing big enough for Costco. Another attempt to revitalize "Anne" is the new musical "Anne and Gilbert," which re-envisions Anne's beau—Gilbert Blythe—as a Zac Efron-like heartthrob. ("Mr. Blythe, you're so beautiful," a group of screaming schoolchildren sing in the opening number.) It's such a hit in Canada, it inspired its own YouTube tribute, backed by the cast album.
Still, as popular as "Anne" has become—there are dozens and dozens of editions—you have to wonder if she isn't getting a little shortchanged. You need to look hard in an American bookstore to find her—she's been displaced, of course, by "Potter" and a new genre of chick lit targeted to girls with covers that show cell-phone-carrying, bikini-clad princesses, à la "Gossip Girl." Earlier this month, the blog Jezebel featured a post called Why Isn't Anne Shirley Worthy of Huck Finn Status? Even Mark Twain praised "Green Gables," and yet the books are rarely taught in college. Is it academia's own inherent bias against children's books and women authors? Or the fact that it's not as sexy to read about a girl rascal, who, ultimately, is good in the same way as Tom Sawyer? If you have any doubt about good-girl survival rates, just look at how hard it is for Miley Cyrus to walk the line between being a Disney princess and a Vanity Fair pinup. But when it comes to good old-fashioned longevity, it's hard to beat wholesomeness. Which is why it wouldn't hurt if more novelists slipped into Anne's shoes. Or, if they really wanted to be daring, her dress.