Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli

Author: Jerry Spinelli
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf (2000)
Number of Pages: 186
How long it took me to read: 3 days
Where I got this book: Some small bookstore in the mall.
ISBN: 0-679-88637-0

Like a Moth to a Flame

I’ve never really fit in anywhere. I laugh when no one else is laughing, make awkward points in conversation, and when it suits me, dress completely out of style. A boy in high school once told me that I made him think of the Aerosmith song “Sweet Emotion.” Unfamiliar with the song, I blushed; he then quoted the specific line he meant: “Talk about things that nobody cares/wearing out things that nobody wears.”

My sophomore year in college, I finally made friends with a girl who seemed to speak the same language as I: Megen Farrow. She was (and is) beautiful and ridiculous, naïve and brilliant. We weren’t always on the same page, but it was close enough. She has told me several times throughout our friendship, “You remind me of Stargirl.” As I begin to read this story of an unconventional girl, I can only hope the comparison is more flattering than “Sweet Emotion.”

Favorite Five

I propose that the top 5 quotes from this book are:

5. “Of all the unusual features of Stargirl, this struck me as the most remarkable. Bad things did not stick to her. Correction: her bad things did not stick to her. Our bad things stuck very much to her. If we were hurt, if we were unhappy or otherwise victimized by life, she seemed to know about it, and to care, as soon as we did. But bad things falling on her—unkind words, nasty stares, foot blisters—she seemed unaware of. I never saw her look in a mirror, never heard her complain. All of her feelings, all of her attentions flowed outward. She had no ego.” (pp.52-3)

4. “It’s in the morning, for most of us. It’s that time, those few seconds when we’re coming out of sleep but we’re not really awake yet. For those few seconds we’re something more primitive than what we are about to become. We have just slept the sleep of our most distant ancestors, and something of them and their world still clings to us. For those few moments we are unformed, uncivilized. We are not the people we know as ourselves, but creatures more in tune with a tree than a keyboard. We are untitled, unnamed, natural, suspended between was and will be, the tadpole before the frog, the worm before the butterfly. We are, for a few brief moments, anything and everything we could be.” (pp.102-3)

3. “She was elusive. She was today. She was tomorrow. She was the faintest scent of a cactus flower, the flitting shadow of an elf owl. We did not know what to make of her. In our minds we tried to pin her to a corkboard like a butterfly, but the pin merely went through and away she flew.” (p.15)

2. “In that moonlit hour, I acquired a sense of the otherness of things. I liked the feeling the moonlight gave me, as if it wasn’t the opposite of day, but its underside, its private side, when the fabulous purred on my snow-white sheet like some dark cat come in from the desert.” (p.12)

…and my pick for the No.1 quote is…

1. “In the Sonoran Desert there are ponds. You could be standing in the middle of one and not know it, because the ponds are usually dry. Nor would you know that inches below your feet, frogs are sleeping, their heartbeats down to once or twice per minute. They lie dormant and waiting, these mud frogs, for without water their lives are incomplete, they are not fully themselves. For many months they sleep like this within the earth. And then the rain comes. And a hundred pairs of eyes pop out of the mud, and at night a hundred voices call across the moonlit water.” (p.40)

Conversation with the Reader

While I read, I write, and as I write, I read. Here’s some of what I wrote while I read this book:

Stargirl is introduced on the first day of school dressed in a Victorian gown, casually strumming a ukulele. The student population, and in particular Leo, the narrator, has a hard time accepting her, and that isn’t difficult to understand. I can easily recall the maelstrom of anxiety that is the high school cafeteria: no one wants to stand out in a negative way, so somehow even looking for a place to sit seems as difficult and important a choice as finding a spouse. The search for identity is terrifying, and anyone who draws unnecessary attention to himself must either be idolized or mocked, once it’s decided whether his unique skills are admirable in mainstream society. All of Mica High is waiting to find out where Stargirl falls on the spectrum and I, sitting beside Leo in the cafeteria as she strolls past in song, must calmly wait, too.”

“So much of Leo’s narrative is we rather than Iwe were afraid, we wondered, we didn’t know—as if he were writing for the whole school. Since he is at the uncomfortable age when everyone searches for identity yet is afraid to have one, it’s not surprising that he wants to keep from standing out, even in his own narrative.

“The students all strive to emulate one classmate, Wayne Parr, a handsome boy who is disinterested, uninvolved, and unmotivated. His only goal in life is to grace the cover of GQ magazine. How interesting that Spinelli would write the heart of the student body as a boy driven only by his personal appearance, with no desire to cultivate depth, talent, or curiosity. In a society where people regularly plaster their faces on the Internet and send the world updates on what they are eating for dinner, it does seem appropriate. It’s as if Spinelli has intended for Mica High to be a microcosm of America.”

“When Leo and his friend Kevin visit their older mentor, Archie, they ask for his opinion of Stargirl. Rather than sort through their own ideas, they really want to be told how to feel.

“How often do we look around to make sure we are reacting the way we ought to? There are many aspects of my life that I keep private; I assume other people wouldn’t understand. But why should I be afraid of someone’s inability to see things my way? Isn’t part of what makes us human the very fact that we’re all so different? Throughout school, posters and pamphlets commanded we ‘celebrate our differences’ but I’ve rarely seen people do that, in or out of school. More often, I’ve seen people argue their differences and look for ways to turn joy into pain. If we really were following that favorite school-taught command to celebrate our differences, we would be talking without trying to convince and listening without preparing an argument or insult to come back with. Rather than simply enjoy each other, we seek to change the other without wanting to be changed ourselves…but I don’t think it works that way.”

“When the other students discover that Stargirl was previously a homeschooler, they conclude that this explains her odd behavior. I can’t argue with that. My husband was homeschooled until he was a teenager, at which point he was thrust into public school. Unaware of average teenage customs, he had no problem greeting people he only sort-of knew and starting conversations with strangers. His friendliness had an adverse effect as the other kids didn’t know what to make of him. Looking back, this part of his life really frustrates him as he felt he had to unlearn his pleasant nature to fit in, only to discover once he got a job that the demeanor of a surly teenager didn’t do him any favors. He quickly shed the old act and began to really connect with every person he came across. He’s now happy to talk to anyone, at any time, about practically anything.

“I, on the other hand, am naturally a shy person, though I work hard to combat that. It’s taken some time, though. In sixth grade, I was very quiet and hated attention. Though you wouldn’t think it, not talking can bring a lot of unwanted attention onto oneself. One day at lunch, everyone at my table realized I hadn’t said anything the whole time we’d been sitting there and pressed me: ‘Why aren’t you talking, Alice? Why won’t you say anything? Say something!’ If you’ve ever been cornered by a group of middle-schoolers demanding that you talk, I’m sure you know that the only reasonable thing to do is put your lunch box on your head and not say anything. So of course, that’s what I did.

“In high school, I had this amazing revelation that everyone was afraid of one another and that everyone really wanted to be liked. I decided then to stop being afraid of my classmates and to find ways to make them feel special. I began to say hi to each person I passed in the hall, and gave myself the challenge of earnestly complimenting anyone I found myself talking to. I still try to make sure that the kind words said about a person in his or her absence make it back to that person: insults and gossip spread easily, but people are usually too shy or oblivious to offer a simple compliment.”

“Stargirl’s wild behavior offers her fellow classmates the opportunity to let their guards down and be themselves without fear of judgment, yet they find their freedom in adopting her styles rather than in discovering their own. I’ve noticed something similar in pop culture as eccentricity becomes vogue at times, mostly with singers—Madonna, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga. I don’t like them, but I’ve noticed that when they do something crazy, the general consensus is that it’s okay. It’s encouraged, even. People enjoy the weirdness of these women and imitate it to the point that there is no longer anything unique about what they’re doing. I can’t help but wonder how many celebrities are as strange as we think they are; I think it’s more likely they just know what to do to remain in the public eye. More than that, I wonder if their fans ever realize that by adopting the words and styles of another person, they are not cultivating identity but conformity?”

“Sometimes, everyone wants to dance, but instead of rushing to the dance floor, they wait tentatively on the sidelines for the first brave soul to come out dancing. Something I’ve learned from my mother is that everyone will follow you if you dance. I remember going to an outdoor concert when I was in fourth grade. My mother ran straight down to the front, right by the band, and my sisters and I happily followed. I was dancing with her when suddenly, a girl from my school appeared beside me to say hi. Seeing my mother joyous in dance, she joined us, copying my mother’s moves as closely as she could. This is when I realized that most people just want an excuse to express themselves. We want to be free, unconstrained by the rules of behavior we’ve made for ourselves. We want to dance.

“For the most part, we all have terrified artists locked inside of us, afraid to create, creatures who resemble untamed versions of ourselves. They live close to our hearts, tapping toes in time to the tunes of our inner desires, constrained by something—perhaps some unspoken societal ideal that we should control ourselves, or perhaps out of fear of failure or fear that success is in some way dangerous. I know I do. My artist yearns to dance despite my lack of grace, to sing despite my laughable off-key tone, and even more, to write the book that will change everything. When I consider her, she is reminiscent of the wild narrator in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, the woman trapped in a small room, desperate for meaningful conversation, going insane for lack of an outlet, for simple pen and paper.

“I lock my artist away in fear, but what is there to be afraid of? Embarrassment? Criticism? In college, I bought Dr. Paul red pens to use to scribble all over my writing assignments, unleashing a terror on my fellow students who had found comfort in the black ink he had taken to writing notes in. But I wanted my papers bleeding red. Why? How had I been so bold then only to retreat now? It doesn’t suit me.

“Why did I befriend my fear, pretend each new concern was a gift rather than a chain? It won’t leave me if I make it comfortable, and it won’t change into something else if I continue to placate it. I can’t continue to live side by side with it, all the while refusing my crazed artist pen and paper.

“I must choose action! I must choose release! I must unshackle my wide-eyed, wild-haired, hungry artist in spite of my fears. What’s the worst that could happen—undeserving happiness as I sing loudly and dance freely? Or perhaps a light-headed feeling as all the words I’ve had pounding on my brain are released onto an unsuspecting ream of paper? What a life that would be!”

“Though Stargirl joins the cheerleaders, she has a hard time cheering for her own team when it’s crushing its opponent. I can understand feeling empathetic towards the losing team. It’s not fun to lose, especially to a mean winner. I’ve found that in the midst of playing a silly game, an ultra-competitive spirit can turn a very nice person into a monster. You’d think we’d all get past this as adults, but I have friends I simply can’t play any sort of games with because no matter what we’re playing, if they’re winning, they gloat because they’re better than me, and if I’m winning, they mope because clearly, I’m either lucky or cheating. Nobody likes a poor sport. I so badly do not want to be a poor sport that I, whether winning or losing, will try my hardest not to draw attention to it. I’ve even helped other people catch up in a game in an effort to keep them from throwing the pieces everywhere.”

“Stargirl’s character is not a complex one. She wants to be open and loving towards everyone. I smile as she leaves out candy for fellow students on Valentine’s Day. Most of my teenage years were spent without a boyfriend and Valentine’s Day made me bitter as I saw so many happy couples lining the halls. At one point, though, it occurred to me that I had overlooked all the unhappy people in the halls. I remember a friend of mine in high school remarking sadly, ‘The only Valentine I’ll get this year is from my dad.’ I decided then that I was going to celebrate all the love I had always had—the love of family and friends. And I decided everyone else should feel that, too. So for Valentine’s Day, I stuffed my pockets with Hershey’s kisses and Dove hearts and handed them out to people throughout the day. I bought a box of cheesy Valentine cards with knock-knock jokes on them and gave them to friends, acquaintances, and teachers. Everyone should feel loved.”

“Despite the school’s love/hate relationship with Stargirl, the youth of Mica High have no problem accepting Archie, an older man who teaches them about bones. Though he speaks to skulls and converses with a giant saguaro cactus (in Spanish) in his backyard, his eccentricity is admired; Stargirl’s, on the other hand, leads eventually to shunning. For some reason, they feel comfortable with Archie’s strangeness, but outgrow Stargirl’s.

“This gnaws on me as I continue reading. Is it because he’s older? Is outrageous behavior acceptable in mature adults and not with younger generations? I’m trying to recall similar people from my own high school experience. I had eccentric teachers, certainly, but not all of them were appreciated for their eccentricity. Some of them ended up as the focus of nasty rumors: one of my favorite teachers supposedly tried to commit suicide; it was whispered of another teacher that he was ‘The Colonial Parkway Killer,’ a homicidal maniac who had killed a string of people in the late 1980’s and was never caught; one teacher may or may not have had a relationship with a student and did eventually leave the school because of these rumors. Other teachers were well-loved for their goofiness. I never could catch on to the trick of making people like you. I guess the easiest explanation is that there is no trick; you either naturally draw people in or naturally repel them. In fiction, I suppose this can’t be resolved; it suits the narrative for Stargirl to be admired and then hated, as people both desire and fear the unknown.”

“Stargirl’s hobby of cheering people on and leaving cards and gifts to encourage others is something else that reminds me of my mother. When we were children, she took us to a convalescent center on Valentine’s Day. I’m not sure that we even knew anyone there, but it didn’t matter. We went around hugging people and giving them heart stickers to wear on their shirts. The joy on their faces proved it didn’t matter that we were strangers—it mattered that they felt loved. I didn’t realize then that so many of these people were rarely visited by their own children and grandchildren. We made them feel like they weren’t living in a storage space for the elderly—that they were important and deserved attention.”

“Even though it’s squeezed into a sad montage, I have to smile when Leo chides Stargirl for her unusually loud laugh. I am well-known for that very thing. A boy took me to the movies once in college and I laughed so loudly that I embarrassed him. He was convinced people were staring, but I don’t think they were; we were all the way in the back. Another time, I was at a movie with my sister, and afterwards, on the other side of the theater, we saw our friend Jenny. We walked over to say hi and she said, ‘I knew you guys were here! I could hear Alice laughing.’ “

“Throughout the narrative, everyone is trying to make sense of Stargirl. They see her as an anomaly and want to define her. My problem with the narrative is that, as I said, she doesn’t seem that complex to me. Undoubtedly, she does a few things that seem strange: I’ve never secretly followed anyone in the mall to try to figure them out, nor would I furtively take pictures of the child across the street to create a surprise scrapbook for him ten years later. But the other things she does—being friendly with everyone, bunny hopping at a school dance, surprising people with gifts and cards—just don’t seem strange to me. Even her inexcusable crime of cheering for the other school’s team seems reasonable to me. It looks to me that Spinelli’s goal in writing Stargirl was to create a template for his dream of humanity: we should all be loving, kind, and friendly to one another. We should embrace empathy because if we all worry about one another, no one will ever have to worry about himself. This would be the perfect antidote to an increasingly inward-focused society.”

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  1. Bella says:

    I díd not enjoy this book at all. It was boring and took forever. The imagination is something I do admire but everything else just seems like it drags on forever

  2. Teta Pisana says:

    “inches below your feet, frogs are sleeping” … what a delicate description …

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