Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli – Review by Carie Juettner
The students at Mica High School in the Arizona desert all seem to be cast from the same mold. For the most part, they dress the same, talk the same, and like and dislike the same things. Nobody really stands out. Then a new girl arrives, wearing wacky clothes, carrying a pet rat on her shoulder, and strumming a ukulele during lunch. As if that’s not weird enough, she calls herself “Stargirl” and seems to have no inhibitions.
At first, the students at Mica High don’t know what to make of Stargirl, but soon she begins to win them over, inciting a revolution of individuality the school has never seen before. But the good times don’t last. When Stargirl, who is nice to everyone, aims her kindness at Mica’s biggest rival, the students turn on her, and nothing Stargirl does can bring them back, not even acting “normal.”
Despite the emotional roller coaster of Stargirl’s year at Mica—going from freak to most popular to shunned—there’s no doubt that she makes an impact on the students, and on one student in particular. Leo Borlock is drawn to Stargirl in a way that keeps him up at night. He can’t stop thinking about her, can’t stop wondering about the odd things she says and does, the tiny ways she incorporates herself into other people’s lives. And yet, he also can’t stop wishing she were a little less odd herself.
Torn between his love for Stargirl and his desire to conform to the group, Leo walks the line between “her” and “them,” unable to choose until it might be too late.
In one way, Stargirl is a simple book about the power of individuality and the struggle for acceptance. It’s about figuring out who you are and who you want to be and how hard that is to do when you’re a teenager. But Jerry Spinelli’s beautiful writing makes it so much more. The novel is full of metaphors that perfectly illustrate the characters’ emotional journeys.
To describe the conformity of the Mica High students, Spinelli compares them to rubber bands, quickly snapping back into place when stretched. And when Stargirl brings the students out of their shell, he compares her to the rain, awakening dormant mud frogs from their slumber. Later, when Leo finds himself entranced in the magical aura of Stargirl, he says, “She was bendable light: she shone around every corner of my day.”
Stargirl is a book close to my heart. It’s one that I read aloud many times during the years when I taught seventh grade. Even though the characters are high schoolers, it’s an excellent book to teach in middle school, when the allure of the group mindset becomes so strong. There is so much to discuss in it, from the figurative language on every page to the meanness of the students to the bittersweet ending. The story touches on meditation, enchanted places, and what happens when good deeds go unappreciated. Plus, there are some gorgeous descriptions of the Arizona desert. This is a book you can read again and again and still find new details to love.
Another reason why I enjoyed teaching this novel to my seventh graders is because most boys, when they see the title and cover, shy away from it. It looks like a “girl book.” There was always a lot of groaning when I announced we’d be reading it as a class. So they were surprised to find out that the main character is a guy. The book is told from the perspective of Leo, not Stargirl, and most of the kids—girls and boys both—ended up liking it. (Even though it includes a little kissing.)
Stargirl is a unique novel and an important one. It is a reminder that there is beauty in originality and courage in being yourself. I highly recommend it.
[Note: The audio version of Stargirl is also wonderful. It is narrated by the late, great John Ritter.]
Carie Juettner taught seventh grade English for thirteen years before leaving the classroom to write. Her poems and short stories have appeared in over a dozen publications, including The Texas Poetry Calendar, Dark Moon Digest, and Writers Weekly. She is currently working on a novel for the middle grade audience. Carie lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband and five pets. She enjoys hanging out at her favorite local coffee shops, walking her dog, and reading in her hammock in the backyard. You can follow her on Twitter @cariejuettner or visit her blog: http://www.cariejuettner.com.