Monday, April 2, 2012

Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
186 pages
Jerry Spinelli's Stargirl is a modern classic that addresses the importance of individuality and explores the impact of social conformity in this poetic, deeply moving story of a rare teenager who proved to others that being different is a gift and not a curse.

What happens when a girl who is carrying a pet rat, a ukulele, and a sunflower canvas bag, and is wearing a long flowing white pioneer dress without make up attends high school for the first time?

She sets the school abuzz. Everyone whispers about Stargirl. Who is she? Is she real? What kind of name is Stargirl? The reason why Stargirl causes such a scene is because of the type of town she lives in and the school she attended. The narrator reveals the social structure: "Mica Area High School--MAHS--was not exactly a hotbed of nonconformity. There were individual variants here and there, of course, but within pretty narrow limits we all wore the same clothes, talked the same way, ate the same food, listened to the same music. Even our dorks and nerds had a MAHS stamp on them. If we happened to somehow distinguish ourselves, we quickly snapped back into place, like rubber bands."
Stargirl Caraway is a uniquely eccentric 15 year old who attends public school for the first time at Mica Area High School in Arizona. Her real name is Susan, but she doesn't think it matches her and names herself Stargirl during this time--she had other odd nicknames such as "Pocket Mouse" before.
At first people think she is joking or is a ruse planted by the school faculty to inject school spirit. After several months people start to believe she's probably just crazy. The narrator tells readers that “she laughed when there was no joke. She danced when there was no music. She had no friends, yet she was the friendliest person in school. In her answers in class, she often spoke of sea horses and stars, but she did not know what a football was."
She also sings "Happy Birthday" to complete strangers in the cafeteria, gives out cards and candy every day and says hi to everyone. What kind of person does these things? Stargirl is a rare individual who does not care about social mores. She is selfless and energetic in ways the narrator of the story, Leo Borlock, can never understand. He explains the school's fascination with Stargirl: "We wanted to define her, to wrap her up as we did each other, but we could not seem to get past 'weird' and 'strange' and 'goofy.' Her ways knocked us off balance. A single word seemed to hover in the cloudless sky over the school: HUH?"

Leo Borlock is a junior at the same high school and he is completely fascinated by Stargirl. He doesn't realize he is falling in love with her even though he followed her for miles after school one day and stays up late every night under the moon thinking about her. Leo poetically tries to capture her essence: "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 cork board like a butterfly, but the pin merely went through and away she flew.”

Around the time Stargirl becomes unexpectedly popular, Leo and Stargirl begin a tentative relationship. Leo learns how to see the world through Stargirl's eyes: an unlimited space of possibility. He starts to notice what is going on around him and sympathizing with strangers. Leo lovingly declares that “she was bendable light: she shone around every corner of my day.”  

In many ways Stargirl seems to take over Leo's whole life. He is willing to accept it until Stargirl becomes a social pariah for her innocent, yet unacceptable behavior as a cheerleader during basketball season. When Leo notices he's become invisible to his peers due to his relationship with Stargirl he begins to succumb to the pressure and influences Stargirl to change.

After Stargirl realizes her "normal" teenage act isn't working she becomes herself again and Leo makes his choice: the crowd is more important. But that doesn't stop Stargirl from attending a school ball and winning the affections of her fellow students in an unforgettably emphatic fashion when she leads a bunny hop train.

Stargirl leaves after the ball and no one at the high school has ever seen her since. Leo reflects on the light that Stargirl shined on his small town and how she still impacts his life everyday fifteen years later. He wonders if he there is still a has a chance to be with her. A gift he receives the day before his birthday leads him to believe he does.

Though Stargirl compromised her identity to be with Leo, she's not the one who changes at Mica High. Everyone around her does. She forces people to rethink their views on society and behavior and what is acceptable and what is true. She gave herself the perfect name. In less than a school year her legacy lived on like the stars in the sky.
A wise teacher in the story explains the unique eccentricity of Stargirl: “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. And then...and then -- ah -- we open our eyes and the day is before us and ... we become ourselves."

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