How important is it to “fit in” during high school? Jerry Spinelli explores that question in his young adult novel Stargirl, which is the first book in a two-part series.
The narrator, Leo Borlock, tells Stargirl’s story in the first person point of view after fifteen years have elapsed. The narrative begins with a flashback of Leo receiving a favorite porcupine tie from his uncle when he moved from Pennsylvania to Arizona and a surprise second porcupine tie he receives on his fourteenth birthday. Leo has no idea that the anonymous gift giver will take him out of his comfort zone and will become the love of his life during high school. Nor does he realize that she will change the school and his life.
This unusual and anonymous gift segues to Leo meeting the unique and unconventional Stargirl in Mica, Arizona. The setting is a fictitious town and is home to MicaTronics where many of the inhabitants are employed. Many of the townspeople were not born there, but came to Mica for work. The school is mainly upper-middle class. Local teens attend Mica Area High School, MAHS, home of the Electrons.
Once Stargirl, who was previously homeschooled, arrives at MAHS, Hillari Kimble speads a rumor that she is a “plant” to improve school spirit. Many students think that she just could not be for real. However, Leo in his heart knows she is “real” and watches her shyly from afar.
Stargirl’s behavior is not typical for most high school students. At her first football game, Stargirl cheers for both teams, dances during halftime with the band and is chased off the top of the goal posts. The next day she is invited to become a cheerleader. The football team that hardly had enough ticket sales to pay for the lights is now a crowded affair. By January, Stargirl is the most popular girl in school.
Stargirl’s intentions are always pure. However, her unconventional behavior eventually gets her into trouble. The first conflict occurs when someone overhears her saying the Pledge of Allegiance wrongly. Next, she attends a funeral of a classmate’s relative whom she did not know and upsets the dead girl's mother. She also leaves a new bike without a note for a boy who breaks his leg, a gesture which upsets the family. Then, the basketball team wins all its games and school spirit is high. At first, the students do not mind Stargirl cheering for the other team. However, when the team wins every game and has a chance at winning the state title, they mind.
One large conflict in Stargirl's life involves Leo and his best friend Kevin. They interview Stargirl on Hot Seat, a MAHS television show. A “jury” of school students may ask questions but are not allowed to render verdicts or to vote. The show starts with a funny incident when Stargirl acts like the seat was actually “hot,” and then Cinnamon, Stargirl's pet rat, climbs into Kevin’s shirt. Then, the jury begins pelting her with questions and comments about her unusual name, the Pledge of Allegiance debacle and cheering for the other team. The show never airs; however, the whole school hears about what happens.
A turning point in the novel occurs during the biggest basketball game of the year. After the Electrons make it to playoffs, Stargirl begins cheering only for the home team. However, the Electrons begin losing for the first time all year. The star player of the other team breaks his leg on the court, and Stargirl puts his head in her lap as he lies in pain on the floor. The Electrons win after taking out their best player. At the next big game, she keeps cheering when it is obvious that the Electrons will lose, and someone throws a tomato at her face. After this game, the school population begins shunning her, and she is kicked off the cheerleading squad.
After the big game, Leo finds a homemade Valentine card signed in code with a star and a stick figure girl. Stargirl takes him to an “enchanted” place where they meditate. They continue to walk, talk, give presents to strangers and ride bikes. She completely flabbergasts him when she covers the school bulletin board, The Roadrunner, with the words: Stargirl loves Leo. The shunning becomes more intense for Leo.
To please Leo, Stargirl buys regular clothes and tries to act “normal.” She even starts calling herself Susan. They began to do the normal things that couples do, like eat at pizza places, go to the mall and go to the movies. However, “they,” the student body, still do not like her.
Stargirl has a vision that when she wins the oratory contest that the whole town will come out and greet her when she comes back with the trophy. She believes that the shunning will end. Leo goes with her to the contest, and she receives much attention at the state finals when she wins. But when she returns home, no cheering crowd greets her and Stargirl is devastated.
After the disaster of the contest homecoming, Stargirl becomes herself again. She dresses in long skirts and plays her ukulele at lunch. Dori Dilison, her only friend, stays with her. Leo was too stunned and cowardly to hang out with her. She even tells him that it is all right that he does not ask her to the Ocotillo Ball.
At the ball, Leo is watching from afar on his bicycle when Stargirl arrives in a bicycle sidecar driven by Dori. She is wearing a beautiful yellow dress full of flowers. She dances by herself and then a boy asks her to dance. Later, she leads the bunny hop all over the Mica Country Club with the whole school joining in, except for Wayne and Hillari. After they arrive back on the dance floor, Hillari tells her that she ruins everything and slaps her. Stargirl kisses her on the cheek and leaves.
Leo goes to her house after watching all of this from a distance, but the family leaves town. He goes to Archie, his mentor, for answers. Leo knows he blew it. Before Leo goes to college, he visits Archie and sees her “office” and finds his file. Later he visits Archie, and they bury one of Archie’s favorite skulls with a secret piece of paper in it.
In the last chapter, the story flashes forward fifteen years. Now, an elementary school stands on her enchanted place. MAHS now has a Sunflower Club, an organization that is dedicated to doing one nice thing for someone else every day. The Electron marching band has a ukulele player, and when the other team makes its first score, a group of students cheer for the opposing team. Fifteen years after the dance, Leo receives a porcupine necktie in the mail, but he never sees Stargirl again.
In most high schools across America, the mantra might be “follow the leader.” Everybody dresses basically the same way, talks the same way, and does the same things. To be accepted, one must act like everyone else. Conformity is the unspoken rule of fitting in.
Leo sums up the student body at MAHS: “MAHS...was not exactly a hotbed of nonconformity....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.”
When Stargirl arrives they do not know how to react her non-conforming ways. She dresses differently, sings "Happy Birthday" to fellow students during lunch and carries around a rat. When she becomes popular, it becomes okay to act like her. Then, she has a fall from grace, and she tries to act like “them.” However, until the ball at the end of the school year, “they” still do not like her. They follow her once again in a bunny hop around a country club. Like Leo says, everybody likes differently...