Monday, June 11, 2018

Stargirl is a deeply flawed and yet highly engaging YA novel

It's about time we talked about "Stargirl," the 2002 YA novel by Jerry Spinelli, which also inspired the name of this blog. First things first, yes, I read a YA novel for fun as an adult. Why you ask? Well, just look at that title and that cover art, how could I NOT read it? It was like made for me. Second, I'm not convinced it really is a YA novel. It really reads and feels more like a chapter book, set in high school, but really aimed at maybe a 5th-6th grade reading level rather than a high-school reader. And that leads us into some of what makes this both a deeply flawed but still highly engaging book.

SPOILERS AHEAD! (Lots of them!) Reading the back of the book, and the wikipedia page, one gets the sense that the narrative purpose of this book is to talk about the importance of respecting (and "celebrating") non-conformity. The book follows a year in the life of a male 11th grade student when a formerly homeschooled young lady joins the 10th grade class. She's quirky, playing her ukulele in the cafeteria, setting up her desk with linens and flowers, running on the field to dance with the marching band, and just generally doing the things a manic dream pixie character does. Oh. Crap.'s one of those stories. (Granted in 2002, this trope was more or less just being recognized for what it is, but still, the feminist in me is not happy about it).

So what could have been a book about non-conformity instead ends up being some sort of lame "boy is transformed by encounter with manic dream pixie" story. Come on Jerry. I love your books. You can do better than this! And for the most part, this is exactly how the book plays out. Eventually they fall in love, he realizes he can't keep up with her, she's gone, he's changed for the better - or is he? The failure to fully flesh out his growth is one of things that makes this book less than it could have been.

There is quite a bit of time spent on bullying in the book, but none of it ever feels like real, honest-to-goodness what high schoolers would do type of bullying. Whichever of the leads it is targeted at, we don't get emotional honesty out of it. Even the lead male's actions don't really feel like what a real person would do in many situations. For saying he loves this girl, and clearly thinking about her all the time, one would expect his hormones to overcome his fear of sticking by her when the bullying starts up, but nope. He's pretty much a useless asshole to her, not only watching and not defending her, but actually abandoning her completely. What becomes interesting, and underused, is some of her responses to him during his abandonment of her. It hints at a much richer female character than the manic dream pixie trope she inhabits early in the book.

Furthering this possibility that there is a lot more depth to her character than her trope suggests is when the boy visits her room and notes that she has a toy wagon on a shelf with some rocks in it and some rocks around it. When he asks her, she notes that rocks in the wagon are for the good things, rocks outside it are for the bad things. We get a heartbreaking glimpse during her ostracization when there are almost no rocks in the wagon but those few that are still in it come from knowing that at least the boy is on her side. Sadly, he isn't really on her side as we'll soon discuss. Even sadder, is that this potential peak into her psyche, that she really is affected by the bullying even though she doesn't show it publicly, goes unexplored beyond that moment.

And that's where I began to think a little harder about the book. My assessment is still that it missed the mark, but I can see where it might have been a brilliant book in another revision. What if her character, and indeed none of them, were meant to be taken at face value? What if this story wasn't meant to be taken at face value? What if the whole thing was an allegory? A Buddhist allegory.

Here she is, a character who wants nothing more than to make others' lives better. She leaves little anonymous gifts, she reads the obituaries and tries to care for grieving families, she sings "Happy Birthday" to every person out there. She has dedicated her life to improving the lives of others. Sounds a bit like a bodhisattva doesn't it?

So when she is persecuted, she never fights back. She holds her head up high, she keeps doing what she knows is right. When she is asked to chose between the boys' love (because he's now a boy, not a man, in my mind for being such an ass to her) and sticking with her pixie ways, she chooses to follow the love because she believes it will make him happy, even with her own sacrifice. She is torn down again and again by the other kids in school (all but one, which I don't buy) but never loses her sense of what is important. It reminded me of a Buddhist parable that I have unfortunately not been able to track down a link to, but it involves a traveler in the forest who each time he encounters someone, is asked to give a possession and does so gladly. It ends when he has given up his arms, legs, torso, eyes, and ears and is left unable to move, hear, or see in the forest in complete harmony in his selflessness and generosity. (I really wish I could find that link for you because I'm not telling it well)

There is a startling passage where she takes the boy out to a spot in the desert and begins to engage the boy in lessons on mindfulness, becoming aware of everything and then losing one's own borders and boundaries to become part of everything. It is a highly spiritual scene and very much draws on Buddhist meditation practices. I really do think this whole book could have been revised as a Buddhist allegory with minimal change to the story and just some subtle tweaks.

However, although maybe Jerry had some of those things in mind, it certainly didn't become the dominant take-away. What could have been a transcendental parable on giving and sacrifice just doesn't rise above cute weird girl gets bullied for being weird and boy falls in love with her and is better for it (or maybe not, his growth is debatable), but abandons her because she's too weird.

So what was it about then? I'm not exactly sure, that's why even if it were just about celebrating non-conformity, I don't think it really hit the mark on that either. Her non-conformity isn't really something that we are led to believe can be embraced by others in their own daily lives. If everyone were to embrace it, it wouldn't really be non-conformity anymore either. Jerry (we're on a first name basis if you hadn't noticed, not really, but I imagine we would be) tacks on a very contrived ending where the ripple effects of her kindness do take root in the community even after she leaves. It feels like a pale attempt to make the book about the value of non-conformity and that it can change people. But I'm totally not buying it, but good try!

And yet, in those final pages, he hints at another potential purpose behind this story, this time looking at the male character. This layer is possibly more devastatingly poignant than any other passage in the book when the boy is talking to an adult male who also was knew the girl: 

"'Gave up herself, for a while there. She loved you that much. What an incredibly lucky kid you were.'

I could not look at him. 'I know.'

He shook his head with a wistful sadness. 'No, you don't. You can't know yet. Maybe someday...'"

And then that's it, we never come back to how this boy utterly abandoned his girlfriend to the bullying and "othering" and even when confronted with how he completely blew it, his only retort is "I know." Had the book then spent time on the emotional repercussions and regret of treating someone so poorly, perhaps more poorly than the bullies because he was the one who was supposed to be on her side, then maybe the book would have risen beyond the manic dream pixie tropes. But it didn't. It just moved on from this small interchange and the boy never really had to grapple with the emotional baggage of being so incredibly unkind as to throw her to the wolves and stand back and watch it. So why even have that little scene where he's called out on his assholery? Don't tease us with what could have been an amazing turn in the book and then just drop it.

Of course, this being a chapter book/YA novel, it was never meant to get heavy. So taken as a story for that age group, it's fine, and enjoyable, and engaging. But it could have been so much more. It could have wrestled with what loving kindness really means. It could have wrestled with what it means to completely abandon someone, knowing the harm they will experience, and the regret that SHOULD follow (but doesn't here). But it didn't. An opportunity missed. It just feels like a really good first draft of a story that could have been so much more than a chapter book. I'm really wondering why it wasn't.

So why am I still recommending it? Because if it IS a book for 5th-6th graders, then it's a pretty good one that I really enjoyed. The writing is fluid (my most important need in a book) and we do care about the characters. It also could be a great launching point for deep conversations even if the book doesn't want to go there directly. I'm giving it a 7/10 "Recommended" as a 5th-6th grade book, and a 5/10 "probably not worth your time" for a YA novel. But still, the title is a 10/10 and I can imagine the story it could have been, so that still works for me!


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