Stargirl (2002) by Jerry Spinelli
The Story: A new student arrives at Mica Area High School, and the student body doesn’t know what to make of her. She wears costumes, dances in the rain, carries her rat Cinnamon with her everywhere, strums her ukulele and sings Happy Birthday to people she’s never met in the lunch room, and cheers for both the home and away teams. Once the students gets over their initial puzzlement, she inspires outbursts of individuality throughout the school, and she starts a rebellion: “a rebellion for rather than against. For ourselves” (40). However, when Stargirl’s antics become more than the students can tolerate her eccentric habits becomes disparaged rather than celebrated. Can Stargirl survive the overwhelming conformity of High School?
What Wallace and I Think: I recently discovered the work of Jerry Spinelli when one of my committee members put Report to the Principal’s Office on my comprehension reading list. Since then, I’ve been making my way through some more of Spinelli’s novels for my dissertation research, and while I have enjoyed everything I’ve read by Spinelli thus far, Stargirl is my favorite.
Stargirl is a fascinating character that takes time to accept. Initially everything she did I assumed was for show, to be the center of attention. This undercut the sincerity of her actions and made her weird behavior annoying rather than endearing. However, as I came to know her better through her relationship with the narrator Leo, it’s revealed that she is completely in earnest. One character muses that she is “a little more primitive than the rest of us, a little closer to our beginnings, a little more in touch with the stuff we’re made of” (177). Stargirl is also a flawed character, which makes her even more appealing. She is not completely immune to the desire of wanting to be accepted by her peers, which brings her story from a fantastic realm to reality. She does cave for a time and tires to fit in, and as a reader you do not criticize her for this, but sadly understand.
The narrator, Leo, is equally complex. He embodies the readers’ contradictory feelings for Stargirl: loving her, but not wanting her to get hurt, which means tempering her individuality. Leo is also an interesting character because he falls in love with Stargirl when she is Stargirl, not when she’s trying to fit in, and during a period when the entire school shuns her. He is dazzled by her, and though he is later influenced by the opinions of others, initially falls in love with Stargirl for herself. This is a positive message and frankly a refreshing depiction of a teenage boy in a young adult novel.
Spinelli does a wonderful job of telling a story that is largely a metaphor for the struggle of staying true to yourself in an environment that demands conformity to the norm. The high school he depicts is realistic, not a caricature, and I found myself wondering if I would have the courage to be myself to the extent that Stargirl is not only when I was in high school, but now. Spinelli gracefully captures the fear and risks of being an individual, but leaves us with hope at the end.
Though this story takes place in a high school, it’s a clean story, and I believe would be enjoyed by children twelve and up.