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?