A Magical Tale of Nonconformity: Jerry Spinelli’s Stargirl
Reading Jerry Spinelli's wondrous young adult novel, Stargirl, published in 2000, it seemed like something plucked out of a time capsule from the 1970s -- there were no vampires, no caged battles to the death. This made sense when I realized that Spinelli's first young adult work was released in 1982 and he had been writing them before and ever since. Spinelli sets this quiet coming-of-age story in an ordinary town in a desert community in Arizona at a typical high school. Or, typical until an extraordinary new girl shows up.
Spinelli's tale is narrated by Leo Borlock, a sensitive sixteen-year-old who fits in among his classmates. Everything is going along as usual when Stargirl, fresh from homeschooling, arrives. She is unlike anyone else. She twirls and plays the ukulele in the cafeteria, serenading students with "Happy Birthday." She puts a vase of flowers on her desk every day. She wears the wrong clothes and no makeup. She gives out homemade cards that are unsigned. She cares for people -- but she doesn't seem to care what people think of her.
At first, the students -- Leo especially -- are fascinated, absorbing her brightness and reflecting it themselves. Leo and Stargirl gravitate toward each other and enter their own magical world of first love. But then Stargirl does something just a little too unusual -- an act of good will, really, but directed toward the wrong group -- and the school turns against her. Leo is caught in the middle and finds himself wanting his girlfriend to be "normal," because now he's also being treated as an outcast: "I knew exactly what I had done. I had linked myself to an unpopular person. That was my crime."
"I’m not connected!" Stargirl responds when Leo asks her why she doesn't behave the way other people do. And what is Spinelli really saying here? At times we wonder: Is she mentally ill, an alien, weird, or just … kind and sincere? And as for Leo, continuing their relationship would mean being shunned by his so-called friends. He must answer a tough question: Whose affections are more important: Stargirl's or everyone else's?
Stargirl is as relevant today as it would have been in 1978 because Spinelli captures the timeless experience of the peer pressure to fit in, and the resulting teen angst and bullying if one doesn't comply. This is a modern classic about popularity, the threat of nonconformity, and the choices we make during those teen years that seem so crucial. In 2007, Spinelli published Love, Stargirl and I'm excited to read more about this enchanting young woman. I would like to think I had the moral character to have been her friend in high school (but I can't say for sure).
I was twelve when we moved from Pennsylvania to Arizona. When Uncle Pete came to say goodbye, he was wearing the tie. I though he did so to give me one last look at it, and I was grateful. But then, with a dramatic flourish, he whipped off the tie and draped it around my neck. "It's yours," he said. "Going-away present."
I loved that porcupine tie so much that I decided to start a collection. Two years after we settled in Arizona, the number of ties in my collection was still one. Where do you find a porcupine necktie in Mica, Arizona - or anywhere else, for that matter?
On my fourteenth birthday, I read about myself in the local newspaper. The family section ran a regular feature about kids on their birthdays, and my mother had called in some info. The last sentence read: "As a hobby, Leo Borlock collects porcupine neckties."
Several days later, coming home from school, I found a plastic bag on our front step. Inside was a gift-wrapped package tied with yellow ribbon. The tag said, "Happy Birthday!" I opened the package. It was a porcupine necktie. Two porcupines were tossing darts with their quills, while a third was picking its teeth.
I inspected the box, the tag, the paper. Nowhere could I find the giver's name. I asked my parents. I asked my friends. I called my Uncle Pete. Everyone denied knowing anything about it.
At the time I simply considered the episode a mystery. It did not occur to me that was being watched. We were all being watched.
"Did you see her?"
That was the first thing Kevin said to me on the first day of school, eleventh grade. We were waiting for the bell to ring.
"See who?" I said.
"Hah!" He craned his neck, scanning the mob. He had witnessed something remarkable; it showed on his face. He grinned, still scanning. "You'll know."
There were hundreds of us, milling about, calling names, pointing to summer-tanned faces we hadn't seen since June. Our interest in each other was never keener than during the fifteen minutes before the first bell of the first day.
I punched his arm. "Who?"
The bell rang. We poured inside.
I heard it again in homeroom, a whispered voice behind me as we said the Pledge of Allegiance.
"You see her?"
I heard it in the hallways. I heard it in English and Geometry:
"Did you see her?"
Who could it be? A new student? A spectacular blonde from California? Or from back East, where many of us came from? Or one of those summer makeovers, someone who leaves in June looking like a little girl and returns in September as a full-bodied woman, a ten-week miracle?
And then in Earth Sciences I heard a name: "Stargirl."
I turned to the senior slouched behind me. "Stargirl?" I said. "What kind of name is that?"
"That's it. Stargirl Caraway. She said it in homeroom."
And then I saw her. At lunch. She wore an off-white dress so long it covered her shoes. It had ruffles around the neck and cuffs and looked like it could have been her great-grandmother's wedding gown. Her hair was the color of sand. IT fell to her shoulders. Something was strapped across her back, but it wasn't a book bag. At first I thought it was a miniature guitar. I found out later it was a ukulele.
She did not carry a lunch tray. She did carry a large canvas bag with a life-size sunflower painted on it. The lunchroom was dead silent as she walked by. She stopped at an empty table, laid down her bag, slung the instrument strap over he chair, and sat down. She pulled a sandwich from the bag and started to eat.
Half the lunchroom kept staring, half starting buzzing.
Kevin was grinning. "Wha'd I tell you?"
"She's in tenth grade," he said. "I hear she's been homeschooled till now."
"Maybe that explains it," I said.
Her back was to us, so I couldn't see her face. No one sat with her, but at the tables next to hers kids were cramming two to a seat. She didn't seem to notice. She seemed marooned in a sea of staring buzzing faces.
Kevin was grinning again. "You thinking what I'm thinking?" he said.
I grinned back. I nodded. "Hot Seat."
Hot Seat was our in-school TV show. We had started it the year before. I was producer/director, Kevin was on-camera host. Each month he interviewed a student. So far most of them had been honor student types, athletes, model citizens. Noteworthy in the usual ways, but not especially interesting.
Suddenly Kevin's eyes boggled. The girl was picking up her ukulele. And now she was strumming it. And now she was singing! Strumming away, bobbing her head and shoulders, singing "I'm looking over a four-leaf clover that I over-looked before." Stone silence all around. Then came the sound of a single person clapping. I looked. It was the lunch-line cashier.
And now the girl was standing, slinging her bag over one shoulder and marching among the tables, strumming and singing and strutting and twirling. Head swung, eyes followed her, mouths hung open. Disbelief. When she came by our table, I got my first good look at her face. She wasn't gorgeous, wasn't ugly. A sprinkle of freckles crossed the bridge of her nose. Mostly she looked like a hundred other girls in school, except for two things. She wore no makeup, and her eyes were the biggest I had ever seen, like deer's eyes caught in headlights. She twirled as she went past, he flaring skirt brushing my pantleg, and then she marched out of the lunchroom.
From among the tables came three slow claps. Someone whistled. Someone yelped.
Kevin and I gawked at each other.
Kevin held up his hands and framed a marquee in the air. "Hot Seat! Coming Attraction - Stargirl!"
I slapped the table. "Yes!"
We slammed hands.
From the Hardcover edition.