Intriguingly, Quvenzhane is up against the oldest-ever best actress nominee, 85-year-old French veteran Emmanuelle Riva of "Amour." Rounding out the field are Jessica Chastain for "Zero Dark Thirty," Jennifer Lawrence for "Silver Linings Playbook" and Naomi Watts for "The Impossible." The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences declined a request to comment on Quvenzhane's youth.
Thelma Adams, contributing editor at Yahoo! Movies and a longtime awards prognosticator, points out that Shirley Temple was already well on her way to a career by the time she was 6, the same year she earned an honorary juvenile Oscar.
"There was a lot of craft to what she was doing," Adams said. "With (Quvenzhane's) performance, it's kind of a life force. They've captured this wonderful little girl ... but it's not an acting performance."
"I've seen her at parties," added Adams, the mother of two teenagers who perform. "I know she can get up in her party dress and charm, but I also saw a little girl who'd rather be riding a pony at a kids' party. ... To have her nominated, it's not good for her, no matter how great she was in the movie — and she was terrific — but this red carpet thing is a grind."
But it's exactly that kind of passion that drives such extraordinary kids, said John West, headmaster at The Mirman School for highly gifted children in Los Angeles, whose alumni include actors Crispin Glover, Masi Oka ("Heroes") and David Dorfman ("The Ring" movies).
"I'm not sure they fathom the importance of the honor. They fathom the importance of the work they do — that's far more important," he said. "Any of our students who have been engaged in the arts don't do it because they're looking for approval or glory. They're doing it because the work itself in some unique way touches them in their own lives."
West has no problem with Quvenzhane's nomination: "People throw around all the time that someone is an old soul packaged in a very young body, and as cliched as that may be, it's true."
But Zeitlin said Quvenzhane was still very much a little kid on the set: "She would say things to me like, 'Benh, I'm only 6 years old, you need to use smaller words,' or 'I'm gonna get cranky sometimes.' She had this awareness almost like an observer of a child."
He also points out that Quvenzhane is nothing like the girl she played.
"Hushpuppy as a character is going through unbelievable circumstances. She's damaged, she's morose, she's contemplative, she's quiet, she has this great burden on her shoulders," Zeitlin said. "Quvenzhane Wallis is the most carefree, fun-loving, goofy, playful person you can imagine, and she had to put herself in that skin on a consistent basis."