Thursday, September 30, 2010

Co-review: Stargirl

Back in May, I wrote a post about the Top 100 Children's Novels poll that was done by the School Library Journal blog.  Going through the list is fascinating and I've often gone back to look for books for my children.  Caren suggested we pick a book from the list for a co-review, so we narrowed it down to #61, Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli.  We tried to find a book that was closer to the top of the list that neither of us had read, but these are classics that most people have read, including us.  It wasn't as easy as it looked.

Jerry Spinelli is probably more known for Maniac Magee, #17 on the list and a Newberry winner.  Spinelli shows that he isn't shy about tackling sticky subjects when he writes about racism in Magee, and Stargirl is his platform for examining conformity.  It takes place in a smallish town in Arizona and told from the point of view of high school student Leo Borlock.  High school is typically a homogeneous place with everybody fitting into their allotted cliques.  Once you fit into a spot, it's hard to move out of it, if my memory of high school serves right.  Mica Area High School is no different.

The entire school is thrown for a loop when Stargirl Caraway shows up.  She wears bizarre clothes, plays a ukulele during lunch and serenades kids on their birthdays, has a pet rat named Cinnamon that rides around in her purse, and seems completely at ease with her uniqueness.  Most of the other students find her unnerving, but eventually they start to love her, especially after she brings school spirit back to the sports teams by her antics during football.  Some of the other students hate her, especially Hillari Kimble, head cheerleader and queen of the school.  Hillari doesn't enjoy her spotlight being occupied by Stargirl.

When Stargirl becomes a cheerleader, the basketball team suddenly begins to have enormous success.  The whole school and community becomes obsessed with their winning streak, but when Stargirl cheers for both teams at the games, everyone turns against her.  Where she was once loved, she is now universally reviled.  Leo, who fell in love with her quirkiness and was fascinated with her generosity and love for people, is conflicted as soon as all the negative attention starts.  He wishes that Stargirl would just be like everyone else, but not for her sake but his own.

Not that there's much to spoil in this book, but as always, we talk about everything.

Jenny:  One of the hardest things about high school for me was that demand to blend in, to find a group of like-minded people and stay put.  It wasn't until I left for college that I felt like I finally was able to become the person I always wanted to be.  There just wasn't any room or tolerance for it in high school, but I was also too afraid to step outside my comfort zone.  I related to Leo so much because he loved Stargirl's individuality, but he was also afraid of it.

Caren: I don't think I was self-aware enough in high school to know what I wanted to be, but I definitely felt like my peers' perceptions barely scratched the surface of who I really was. Like you said, college was a refreshing opportunity to reinvent myself away from the stifling confines of high school.  Reading Stargirl, I found myself wishing Leo would stop worrying about what everyone thought and just enjoy their friendship.  But then I would have to remind myself that I can't apply adult perspective to a teenager who literally cannot envision life after high school.  When that's all you have and you can't imagine it ever changing, the risks for not conforming are a lot higher!

I was intrigued by the character of Stargirl.  Not at first.  At first she seemed to try to hard to be weird.  But eventually she won me over and I believed that her uniqueness was genuine and not just an act.  I think her believability was crucial to the success of the story, and Spinelli did a good job pulling it off when all was said and done.

Jenny:  I think what made her genuine to me was when we found out all the nice things she did for people.  Someone who is weird just to get a reaction out of people or draw attention to herself wouldn't be so generous and kind, I don't think.  The bit with going into the desert and meditating wasn't as believable to me as taking pictures of the neighbor boy or a future scrapbook.  That was sweet.

It really bothered me how the group of kids reacted when Stargirl was the guest for The Hot Seat.  It was a prime example of mob mentality and how dangerous that can be.  At first I thought it was an outrageous example, except that I remember from high school that if someone fell out of favor, their lives would become truly miserable.  It was like the whole school turned against them.  There wasn't necessarily screaming mobs in public places, the shunning was definitely common.  What happened to Stargirl was awful, but not unrealistic.

One of my favorite characters was the old professor across the street from the school, Archie Brubaker.  I thought it was a cool idea, but it made me sad to think that in real life, there wouldn't be someone like that.  It's too easy for people to assume horrible things of an old man who has kids over at his house all the time.  It's a nice idea, though.

Caren: I was actually relieved when the Hot Seat was over that it wasn't any worse than that.  Having seen what the teenage mob mentality can do, I was expecting worse!

The whole time I read Stargirl, I couldn't help but think of As Simple As Snow that we reviewed back in March.  There were a lot of similarities, but while Galloway seemed to be intent on forcing a dark edginess to his story, Spinelli kept his lighter and therefore more realistic.  Spinelli really seemed to be speaking to teenagers, whereas I'm not really sure who Galloway's audience was supposed to be.  Contrasting the two, I marvel that Spinelli's climax revolves around something so mundane as the bunny hop, and yet he relates it so skillfully that you really feel like those kids were changed when it was over.

Jenny:  That's true.  I loved that scene, with everybody happy and exultant after bunny hopping way out yonder and back.  It was a good way for Stargirl to disappear into the sunset.  I'm glad it ended that way instead of Stargirl just evaporating and everybody realizing after the fact that she only did good things for them.

Apparently there's one book after this one, Love, Stargirl.  I haven't heard great things about it, but it's written in Stargirl's point of view, which might be interesting.  Also, according to Jerry Spinelli's website, you can start your own Stargirl society.  Maybe it's because I'm not a teenager, but I didn't feel so moved by the book that I felt like I should start my own Stargirl society.  Then again, I suppose promoting individuality in teenage girls isn't a bad idea.  Most girls that age need a boost to break out of the mold.

Caren: I had mixed feelings about the ending.  While I was glad that Leo had come to realize what a treasure Stargirl was, I was kind of bothered that he still hadn't gotten over her fifteen years later.  I mean, she was great and all, but that seemed a little much.

I liked that the things that endured were the kindnesses to others.  Individuality for its own sake can be just as forced and fake as conformity with the masses, so I don't think that's the most important thing that Stargirl brought.  But the sensitivity to others and getting outside oneself -- that really was a gift.

I felt the same way about being moved by the novel.  It was good, but I wouldn't read it again, and I'm kind of surprised that people love it so much that it would have made it on the top 100 list.  I'm curious if I would have felt differently if I'd read it when I was a teenager, but we'll never know!

Jenny:  Yeah, I was kind of surprised to see it on the list lumped in the same group as The BFG, Henry Huggins, A Long Way From Chicago.  Good, but not Top 100 of All Time good.  Maybe we're missing out on something because our teens are too far behind us.  I'd love it of one the RHE readers read it as a teen and could give us feedback.  Or if anybody has a teenager handy to read it and report back.  Anyone?


  1. Well, I don't have a teenager on hand, but I do have a pre-teen who read it last year (4th grade). When I asked her if she liked it: Yes. What did you think of it: It was ok. So, it may have been that she was 6 years younger than the target audience, but I think she felt about it the same way I did when I read it 2 years ago: a good book and an interesting commentary on being unique, but I agree not top 100 material.

  2. I read this one back in Mississippi, and I really really loved it. When I was in high school I was a band geek that longed to be popular. Of course, there was no Stargirl at my school, but there were kids that seemed to be comfortable being themselves. I envied them and sort of scorned them, too, because I wanted to be popular. I know, I'm rambling. The point is, I felt like Spinelli expressed high school very accurately. Of course, it's been a while since I read it. I'm going to have to go read it again.

  3. I'm not sure if this will be read but I feel the need to put in a few words in defence of this book.
    First off, I'd like to say that I am a teenager (17 and a senior in high school). I first read this in 7th grade and felt similarly that it was good, but not anything special. Then again, I was a 7th grader. What did I know? However, I did happen to reread it at the beginning of high school and I really love it.
    It seems to me that you're overanalysing this book and underestimating the effect that something like this can have on a girl just entering high school. I would go so far as to say this was a life changing book for me. I looked up to (and still do look up to) Stargirl as a role model. Of course, I know it's just fiction and her character is sometimes a little unbelievable, but that's the point! It's something to strive for. To be nice to everyone, to find ways of distributing random acts of kindness, and yeah even to find some alone time (maybe not out in the desert, but that's beside the point) to relax and let stress go away.
    Maybe it has to do with the age you read it at. It seems that if you're too far out of high school or maybe even college you won't be able to relate to the characters and if you're too young you won't know how to really get something out of a book. I guess I'm writing a lot, but I really want people (even if it's just two) to understand how much this book can mean to someone. In this instance, that someone being me. I've read it 8 times or so and it's a book that I constantly recommend to anyone I know. I'd love to elaborate more on this, but I'm guessing you don't want to read a whole dissertation.
    Anyway, my point is that you may have missed some thing in reading this. There's even more to it than just a girl who has the nerve to be unique in a school where everyone conforms.