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Stargirl (Stargirl #1) by Jerry Spinelli

StargirlGenre: Middle grade contemporary fiction

Jerry Spinelli’s Stargirl dates back to 2000, but I had never heard of the book until I was browsing through a list of recommended titles on the wonderful website A Mighty Girl. The list consisted of books about bullying that were hand-picked because of their excellence. As a mother, bullying is an issue that I think is very important to discuss with my kids, so I bought the book to use as a baseline for discussion. I had no idea it would turn out to be one of the most beautiful, touching books I’ve read in years.

Leo Borlock is a junior at Mica High School in Arizona. Though Mica is a new town mostly peopled by transplants from other parts of the U.S., its high school students already fall into proscribed societal roles. When Stargirl arrives and shakes up the school, Leo finds himself embroiled in a first love that makes some difficult, life-altering demands of him.

On the downside:

Leo – This is not because he’s a bad character. On the contrary, he’s very well done, as are most of the characters in the book. I was convinced by Leo and by his struggles. My disappointment with him has a lot more to do with what he asks of Stargirl. Though he is drawn to her lack of convention, it becomes a major point of contention between the two of them, and it leads to his asking her to transform herself into something she’s not. I applauded Leo for following his heart by falling in love with Stargirl, but it broke mine when he wanted her to spare him his sense of embarrassment by conforming.

On the upside:

Stargirl – No, her given name isn’t Stargirl, but her choice of name is only one of the things that made this character so compelling. Pretty much anyone who’s gone to an American high school can explain the basic character types you’ll find within the school’s walls, and Stargirl is not one of them. Having been homeschooled up until attending Mica as a tenth grader, Stargirl is initially oblivious to the social order and conventions at Mica. Stargirl is wholly Stargirl, and she’s baffled by the way the other students react to her. She’s a larger than life character, so I can see how that might make her unbelievable to some readers, but I also think we all have a little Stargirl in us. She makes for an interesting foil to Leo, who pretty much suppresses his own feelings and desires in order to fit in. Stargirl feels no such obligation. She embraces life in a way that moved me, and she’s one of the freshest, most original characters I’ve encountered in a book. It may seem like I’ve given away a lot about her, but I’ve really only scratched the surface. A big part of what made reading this book such a pleasure was the way Stargirl’s character is slowly revealed, layer by layer. Each time I thought I couldn’t possibly be more blown away by her, another facet of her personality was uncovered that blew me away yet again.

The writing – This tale is so tenderly told. As let down as I was by Leo, I could see where he was coming from, and I don’t think Spinelli makes any judgements about his characters. Leo and Stargirl are driven by different forces, and their struggles were understandable. This is a short book, but even so it is beautifully told. The language is very vivid and so imaginative that I wished I could meet Stargirl in real life. There was nothing forced or lurid about the story, and the moments of deep emotion are depicted in a very genuine, very moving way.

The message – Encouraging people to be who they are –┬áis simplistic, because society does have expectations for how people should behave, and those who don’t adhere to society’s unwritten rules usually suffer for it. Spinelli never pretends any differently in his novel. At first, the students are taken by the novelty that is Stargirl, but after a while her originality rubs them the wrong way, and they punish her harshly for it. The whole time I was reading, I was constantly thinking about the tension between trying to be something you’re not and learning how to deal with the consequences of being who you are. If this were a simpler tale, everything would work out perfectly in the end, but the book does an excellent job of portraying the messiness of reality. There is no perfect solution to the problems Stargirl and Leo have, and the ending simultaneously broke my heart and uplifted me. Both Leo and Stargirl learn a great deal about themselves, and the lessons they learn don’t come without a considerable measure of pain. I felt very deeply for them, for the agonizing lesson they both had to learn about what it means to love unconditionally, and about how conformity can destroy the essence of a person, making them nothing more than a shell of who they once were.

This was one of those books that left me in tears, and it touched me in a lasting way. It made me look at conformity in ways I hadn’t before, and gaining new perspective like that is invaluable. Even if you don’t have a middle grade reader in your life, this is a book that will resonate with you and leave you thinking long after you’ve finished reading.

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