Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli

Novel About Bullying and Peer Pressure

Stargirl Book Cover
Random House

Introduction

Leo Bolstruck is in love, but he just doesn’t know it! When Stargirl Caraway, the new girl in school, proves she’s not like the rest of the student body in dress or deed, she creates an avalanche of emotion. Stargirl shocks her classmates with a personal brand of fashion and friendliness that takes her from instant popularity to instant exclusion. In a classic story about bullying, peer pressure, and individuality, Jerry Spinelli’s beloved Stargirl is a compelling story about a brave girl and the one boy who must choose between following his true feelings and following his friends.

Story Line

Mica High School harbors a student body drowning in low morale until Stargirl Caraway enrolls.
Stargirl’s unique brand of optimism, fashion, and fierce loyalty begins to kindle an awakening in the halls of Mica High. Wearing a floor length flower skirt and carrying a rat named Cinnamon in her backpack, Stargirl greets each student with a smile and a song. Kids in the cafeteria react with shock when she personally serenades them with a Happy Birthday song on her ukulele. And that’s just the beginning.

While most Mica High students stand in awe at Stargirl’s hurricane helpfulness, there are a few who are determined to prove she’s a fraud. Hilari Kimble mocks Stargirl’s attempts to be kind to other students, but another student, Leo Bolstruck is silently worrying about his growing feelings for this above average kind of girl. Leo is amazed, bewildered, and bedazzled by Stargirl’s ability to be happy with herself.

However, when the newness of her originality wanes and the majority of the student body decides Stargirl is a plague upon their school, Leo thinks she can reclaim favor by conforming to more normal ways.

It’s a soul searching moment for Leo when he must either stand by Stargirl or succumb to the attitudes of his peers. In a series of events involving a Hot Seat interview, an oratorical contest, a school marquee, and a cactus named Mr. Saguaro, Stargirl and Leo learn some harsh and sobering lessons about bullying, peer pressure, conformity, and the meaning of friendship.

Author Jerry Spinelli

Jerry Spinelli believes in serendipity. “Life is full of happy accidents,” he stated in a Scholastic interview. Spinelli, born Norristown Pennsylvania, thought he might be a cowboy or a baseball player when he grew up, but when his poem about a high school football game was published in the local paper, he knew he was going to be a writer.

Spinelli devoted himself to writing and after college wrote several adult novels which never saw the publishing light. In a fortuitous change of circumstances, Spinelli learned that a children’s publishing company wanted to publish his book about a thirteen-year-old boy named Maniac Magee. Jerry Spinelli received the prestigious John Newbery Medal in 1991 for Maniac Magee and his career as a children’s author was established.

Spinelli and his wife, author Eileen Spinelli, have six children and currently reside in their native Pennsylvania. Eileen Spinelli is the author of more than 20 children's books, including Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatch, one of my favorite picture books.

(Sources: Scholastic Author Interview, Official Jerry Spinelli Web site)

My Recommendation

Is there a Stargirl Caraway walking around in a school somewhere? I hope so.
Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli is a comedic yet soulful read about the pressure-filled years when kids are trying to find their identities amid a whirlpool of pressure and conformity. Spinelli’s Stargirl character is true to herself. She’s not being different for the sake of getting much needed attention, she’s simply a girl who enjoys wearing flower skirts, being optimistic, and making people happy.

While Stargirl simply likes who she is (there is a moment when she is willing to change to make her friend happy), Leo is struggling with his identity. As Leo reveals his role in the story, it becomes apparent to the reader that here is a character who is uncomfortable with change and who thrives on acceptance. But I wanted to Leo to be a hero.

I wanted Leo to be the morally minded teen who withstood the pressure; but Spinelli isn’t about to candy-coat a story for his audience.

Instead, he honestly depicts the tough reality of peer pressure and conformity that kids face daily. Spinelli brilliantly acknowledges through Leo’s thoughts and actions that Leo is not immune to peer pressure. Spinelli is realistic and understands that even the noblest teen can crack under the need to be accepted by peers.

On the surface, Stargirl feels like a simple story and it’s easy to feel angry at Leo, who as the narrator, is looking back on this moment as a high school memory. For readers who want to know what happened to Stargirl, Spinelli gives her the voice in his sequel Love, Stargirl. Written as a long letter, Stargirl finally gets a chance to reveal her feelings about the events that took place during her sophomore year at Mica High School.

Although this story is written about sixteen-year-old high school sophomores, Stargirl is easily a middle school classic that should be read. The dialogue is simple, the content pure, and the themes of the story valuable. Indeed, the topics of bullying, conformity, peer pressure, and individuality are important discussion openers that would clearly best serve a younger audience before they enter high school. For these reasons, I recommend this book for readers 10-up. (Alfred Knopf Books for Young Readers, A Division of Random House, 2000. ISBN: 9780679886372)

More Resources from Your Guide to Children's Books, Elizabeth Kennedy

The Skinny on Bullying is a good nonfiction book, with an embedded fictional story in comic strip form about bullying. It is a quick and easy read, with a lot of good information. Another quick, entertaining and thought-provoking book is Schooled, a novel by Gordon Korman, whose books are very popular with middle grade readers (grades 4-8). For more about bullying and peer pressure and what parents need to know, see About.com: Bullying. Are there books about bullying and peer pressure that you recommend for upper elementary and middle school kids? If so, please post the titles and some information about them at Readers Respond.