The Short Version: Leo Borlock is a pretty normal 11th Grader – until a girl called Stargirl arrives at Mica High, starting a revolution of spirit in the school and in Leo’s heart. But when her nonconformity goes too far, the school turns against her and Leo must decide whether he loves her or his own acceptance by the community more.
The Review: Christopher Hermelin, my co-host on So Many Damn Books, has been astonished ever since I told him I’d never read Stargirl. After I won a bet surrounding this year’s Tournament of Books, he gave me this book on the condition that I read it immediately and that we talk about it on an episode (and you can listen to that here).
As I was reading this, I found myself casting back into my own history, both literarily and physically, and I realized that I never read all that much YA in general. Spinelli’s book – a masterpiece of the genre, to be certain – came out in 2000, when I would’ve been in 6th/7th grade… and I recall already being well into things like the Shannara series and Stephen King at that point, having forsaken what I believed to be a genre that was beneath me. Perhaps this feeling is what turns so many adult readers into YA haters down the line: they never realize that a book isn’t, at all, beneath them.
It’s strange to read this book from the perspective of being ten years out of high school – in fact, perhaps even stranger because of being at such a memorialized moment and thinking as I have been about my high school days and the life that’s transpired between now and then. Some of the magic of this book might well be indecipherable another generation from now, as I’m sure kids will be baffled by Stargirl’s looking at newspapers and working her lo-fi magic to celebrate the world around her. Human interest stories, the filler in newspapers, have been all but replaced by self-curated online content – and this story exists in a resolutely pre-social media world. This creates a bit of a dissonance for a modern reader, because while the story is so vibrant and delightful, you can’t help but feel like it’s an artifact.
YA, too, has changed in the last fifteen years. Spinelli’s book feels most similar to the work of John Green – but even Green’s work is an anomaly in the current YA scene, where dystopias and thrillers and “paranormal romances” (many of them clocking in at 2-3 times the size of Spinelli’s novel) clutter the shelves and are read as frequently by adults as they are by their ‘intended’ age group. I can’t help but wonder what a modern kid would make of this book. I suppose it doesn’t matter, as this review is solely about what I made of it.
I was the sort of kid who was like Leo Borlock, I like to think – not super popular, but also not too far out of the mainstream either. Friendly enough, known to many, with a thing that made me my own (for me it was theater, for Borlock it was the TV interview show he & his best friend created). Although I guess there’s a bit of Stargirl in me, too: I always came to school on Halloween decked out in my full costume, I didn’t mind having my nose in a book all the time, my house was always overflowing with fun creative energy, and I was prone to ridiculous romantic gestures to the young women who caught my eye at any given moment. But my school didn’t have anybody like Stargirl and I wonder if Spinelli’s lesson (be yourself, let others be themselves too) is magnified purposefully here – except that, while that might work for a teenager, it feels perhaps a bit too simple for a more adult reader. The idea is that Stargirl, whimsical and completely herself and maybe in some ways a bit of a proto-manic-pixie-dream-girl, shows up and turns this sleepy Arizona town upside down by being so wildly non-conformist. The town itself even begins to conform to her non-conformity… before the popular kids, threatened by this loss of control, push back and before Stargirl, cluelessly, goes too far with her lack of understanding of how the world works.
It’s a lovely story and there are so many moments of big-hearted beauty here: Stargirl at the prom, her wagon with its twenty stones, Señor Saguaro, even just the idea of a mysterious kind-hearted person who does nice things for the people of the town without any need for acknowledgement or anything nice in return. But I can’t help thinking that the lesson teens are meant to take from this (again, don’t be afraid to be yourself and don’t force anyone else to conform to how you think they ought to behave) wouldn’t penetrate. I don’t think it would’ve penetrated for me as a teenager – I would’ve been like Leo. I would’ve urged my Stargirl to tone it down, just a little, to fit in until you can make a break for the wider world and be yourself out there. I have to imagine I’m not the only one who thinks that way, too.
Still, there is wonderful charm to this book, even reading it now (at a time when I just can’t connect with it like I might’ve, once upon a once). Spinelli spins characters out of just a few sentences and relies on the reader’s imagination in a way that makes it feel like you’re both creating the story as you go: there’s just enough description to pull you in but not so much that you don’t have to do any work. It’s a particular skill among YA writers and one that doesn’t often make the leap to the adult world, either – and Spinelli is a master. The most enduring image may be of the old and ailing cactus, Señor Saguaro, who looks as though his pants have fallen down: a simple enough image, but a perfect one. So, too, with Stargirl’s arrival at the prom in a bicycle sidecar and her John Waters-esque hijacking of the dancefloor.
Maybe it’s not such a bad thing to be reminded, even all these years later, that it’s worth being yourself always.
Rating: 4 out of 5. There is, for my money, an extremity to this book – a heightened super-realism that, at times, undercuts the message Spinelli is trying to deliver. Stargirl and her ilk, if they do exist, never crossed my path, or at least certainly not in the early years of the 21st Century. It’s only now, as an adult, that I see them all around me – and that I allow myself to be as weird and wonderful as they are, too. Spinelli’s moral is not lost on younger readers, but I’m curious to know how many of them embraced it then – and how many might embrace it now. Perhaps there are more Stargirls in high school today than there ever were ten years ago. I can only hope so.