Girl Reporter Exposes Town’s Dirty (Water) Secret

Written by Kate Reed Petty
Illustrated by Andrea Bell

As a nosy kid in Wisconsin with endless unstructured outdoor time, I occupied myself with the comings and goings of my neighbors. A self-styled Harriet the Spy, I carried a notebook, filed dispatches for my homemade newspaper and proudly mailed copies of it — The Bosman Bulletin, written in navy ballpoint on loose-leaf paper — to my older sister at sleepaway camp.

Kids have seriously evolved since then. In the graphic novel “The Leak,” by Kate Reed Petty and Andrea Bell, Ruth Keller, a 12-year-old news junkie, takes tween-journalist ambition to a new level, seeing misdeeds and corruption around every corner in her town of Twin Oaks. During a fishing excursion with a boy from school, she discovers suspicious black slime in the lake by a country club, and a dead fish that might have succumbed to whatever was in it, setting her on the trail of local businesses dumping polluted water in drains.

Ruth is armed with tools that would have put my circa-1991 self to shame: a cellphone for snapping surreptitious photos, a computer for research, lab equipment for running tests and a weekly e-newsletter with a subscriber base that skyrockets after each investigation.

“The Leak” is a spirited story of civic responsibility, of how to tell fake news from the real thing, of when to trust adults and when to publicly stick it to them. Dedicated to the people of Flint, Mich., it might not have been conceived if it hadn’t been for that city’s water crisis, a cautionary tale of the perils of trusting government to keep citizens safe from harm.

Ruth’s story begins to unfold while she is in the chair at the dentist, who spots a cavity and accuses her — despite her denials — of failing to brush her teeth. During the car ride home, her mother sides with the dentist and reminds her that cavities are expensive, leaving Ruth in a seething, weeping state of misery. Over a family dinner, her melancholy deepens when she’s scolded for interrupting the adults with headlines that pop up on her phone.

Journalism is her escape. Perhaps anticipating the Substack craze, she starts the CoolsLetter, a digest of her own investigations, local crime items and op-eds. She is encouraged by Sara, her older brother’s girlfriend, who is an intern at The New York Times. Sara explains the concept of impostor syndrome, coaches her through an interview and shares basic rules of journalistic ethics.

But Ruth is also surrounded by grown-ups who can be clueless, hostile or condescending. Corporate executives lie to her and a sexist country club owner calls her “little lady.” (Note to aspiring journalists: Yes, this stuff still happens.)

Ruth frequently stumbles. She is impetuous and jumps to conclusions. During her reporting, she doesn’t hesitate to violate the law — breaking and entering, running when she’s caught. Her desire to break stories leads to a difficult confrontation with a pack of girls at school.

The grown-ups do eventually come through, spurred by Ruth’s passion. She finds an ally in her science teacher, who has been told to rein in Ruth’s journalism but makes a quiet move that allows a crucial breakthrough in her investigation.

As one of the journalists who are still covering the Flint story, I know that when you talk to Flint residents today they say they still don’t trust the water that flows from their taps. Ruth Keller would understand why.

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