Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 325
Stargirl, a young adult novel by prolific and critically acclaimed author Jerry Spinelli, was published in August 2000. Like many of Spinelli’s other young adult novels, Stargirl deals with issues of conformity versus individuality, and as such, the novel resonates with both young adult readers and adult educators.
Stargirl is narrated by Leo Borlock, an eleventh grader who is content to conform to his close-minded high school environment. Leo and his entire high school are jolted out of their comfortable, conventional existence by the arrival of Stargirl Caraway, an unapologetically unique student who has been homeschooled and is now attending high school for the first time. For the first half of the school year, Leo observes Stargirl and her classmates’ reactions to her odd behavior. The students first regard Stargirl with suspicion and are afraid to socialize with her. As time passes, some of the students fall under Stargirl’s spell and become more individual and open-minded themselves; however, by February of the school year, the students have all come together to express their distrust of Stargirl. When Stargirl refuses to conform to their standards, they ultimately see her as a threat to the community.
In the second half of the novel, Leo develops a personal relationship with Stargirl, during which he is entranced by her, but he then tries to change her into something more “normal.” When he finds that she cannot abandon her individuality, Leo ultimately rejects Stargirl, a decision he comes to regret later in life. Thus, Stargirl explores the way that individuals (Leo) and communities (the high school) react to an individual who refuses to conform. Rather than providing easy answers, Spinelli explores the consequences of Leo’s very human behavior, with all its flaws and weaknesses. Stargirl forces readers to ask themselves how they would respond to a similar situation: would they stand up for the individual, or, like Leo, would they return to the safety of the larger group?
Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1433
Stargirl opens as narrator Leo Borlock begins eleventh grade at Mica Area High School (MAHS) in Arizona, a typical high school where everyone is pretty much the same—all the students wear the same style of clothing, listen to the same type of music, eat the same kind of food, and talk about the same things. Leo, an introvert and observer, is comfortable in this conformist environment. However, on the first day of school, everyone is abuzz about a new tenth grader, Stargirl Caraway, who is wearing a ruffled, old-fashioned dress long enough to cover her shoes, carrying a ukulele, and toting her pet rat, Cinnamon, to classes. And Stargirl’s behavior only gets odder from there: on the first day of school, she starts singing, dancing, and playing the ukulele in the cafeteria. On subsequent days, her outfits include a 1920s flapper dress, an Indian buckskin, and a kimono, and she begins a tradition of serenading students with the “Happy Birthday” song during lunch.
At first, the other students are suspicious of Stargirl and avoid her. She eats lunch alone but does not seem to care. Leo, however, is intrigued by Stargirl—but not bold enough to approach her directly. Instead, he follows her after school as she walks to a house where she leaves something in the mailbox. Once she is gone, Leo looks in the box and discovers she has left an unsigned card reading “CONGRATULATIONS.” Next, Stargirl walks out of town and into the desert, where Leo follows her for a while before finally getting nervous and returning home.
One night, at a poorly attended MAHS football game, Stargirl dances barefoot on the field during halftime; then, once the second half starts, she grabs the football, dances with it, and throws it over the visiting team’s bench, to the delight of the audience. At the next football game, more than a thousand people show up—but Stargirl does not. However, Stargirl is soon invited to join the school cheerleading squad, and she agrees. At the last football game of the season, Stargirl makes her cheerleading debut to a huge audience, and she never stops cheering, even during breaks. She even joins the other team’s cheerleaders and performs wild acrobatics.
Following Stargirl’s lead, other students begin to become more active, vivacious, and individualistic—they join school activities, start new clubs, wear unusual fashions. As those changes occur, Leo is merely an interested observer, never interacting with Stargirl directly. However, Stargirl does agree to be a guest on Hot Seat, the school TV show that Leo runs with his friend Kevin. They plan to film her interview on February 13th.
In the months before the interview, however, some of Stargirl’s activities garner less-than-enthusiastic responses. When Stargirl attends a funeral for someone she does not know, the family gets angry and throws her out. When basketball season begins and the cheerleaders perform at games, Stargirl cheers for the other team as well as her own, which makes fans increasingly angry. As a result, Stargirl loses her newfound popularity, and when the Hot Seat taping occurs, it turns into a disaster.
The Hot Seat show includes a “jury” of high school students who ask the interviewee—in this case, Stargirl—questions. At Stargirl’s interview, the jury quickly becomes vicious, asking her why she cheers for the other team and why she meddles in everyone’s business whether she is asked to or not. For the first time, Stargirl actually looks hurt by other people’s judgment of her. Leo and Kevin feel terrible and try to diffuse the tension, but they are unsuccessful. Even though they do not air the episode, the truth of what happened quickly spreads through the entire school.
After the incident, Stargirl is even more of an outcast than before. She is kicked off the cheerleading squad, and the number of students sitting at her lunch table quickly dwindles. However, at the same time, Stargirl and Leo begin to develop a personal relationship. Stargirl gives Leo a Valentine’s card that reads “I LOVE YOU,” and when a group of girls calls Leo “Starboy,” he is embarrassed but secretly thrilled. Leo visits Stargirl at her home and quickly becomes “loopy with love,” but he remains self-conscious before his classmates, who deliberately avoid and ignore him when he spends time with Stargirl at school.
Despite Leo’s embarrassment, his relationship with Stargirl begins to blossom, especially outside of school. Stargirl takes Leo to her “enchanted place” in the desert and encourages him to pay attention to nature and enjoy the beauty of the world around him. In addition, Leo joins in on Stargirl’s secret “missions” throughout the town, delivering flowers, balloons, and cards to people they do not even know. Stargirl explains that she reads the paper and eavesdrops to know what is going on in people’s lives, and Leo does so too. He realizes he is becoming less introverted, more appreciative of the world around him, and more able to really see what is in front of him.
However, after Stargirl hangs a giant banner at school that reads “STARGIRL LOVES LEO,” Leo finds himself completely shunned by his classmates. He confronts Stargirl, telling her she cannot just ignore the rest of the world and not care what anyone thinks; he even says that nobody likes her.
After the argument, Stargirl abruptly begins dressing normally, wearing makeup and jewelry, and calling herself “Susan.” Leo is thrilled, and the two begin to do “normal” things together, like going to the movies and shopping. However, to their surprise, the other students continue to shun them.
Stargirl—now “Susan”—has won the district oratory contest, and when she goes to Phoenix for the state competition, she takes Leo with her. She has a “vision” that she will win and is sure a huge crowd of students will be waiting for her back at the high school, where they will finally accept her. In Phoenix, “Susan” gives a speech that is more Stargirl than her new self. She entrances her audience, swinging from subject to subject, from her pet rat to an old man sitting on a bench to her enchanted place in the desert, yet she manages to tie everything together beautifully, and she takes first place. However, when she and Leo return to the high school, they find only one student, Stargirl’s friend Dori, waiting to congratulate her.
After this disappointment, Stargirl finally seems to realize that she will never be accepted as “Susan,” and she returns to her true self, wearing outlandish clothing and carrying her pet rat. She tells Leo she will understand if he does not ask her to the school dance. Leo knows he should stand by Stargirl, but he cannot find the courage, so he avoids her and decides to skip the dance entirely.
Although Leo does not attend the dance, he rides his bike by the club where the dance is taking place and watches from outside. He sees Stargirl arrive alone, in a striking yellow gown with a large hoop skirt. Stargirl dances by herself and begins to charm everyone at the dance, until eventually she is leading the entire student body in the bunny hop. Only one student, queen bee Hillari, refuses to take part. Eventually, Stargirl leads the bunny-hopping students out of the club and over the surrounding golf course; over an hour passes before they return.
When Stargirl finally leads the bunny hoppers back inside, Hillari is waiting for her. She tells Stargirl, “you ruin everything,” and slaps her. Stargirl’s response is to kiss Hillari on the cheek and leave; after that night, none of the students, including Leo, will ever see her again.
The book closes with Leo fifteen years older, reflecting back on his time with Stargirl. He says he has moved east and become a set designer—he adds that he became one “the day Stargirl took me to her enchanted place”—although he occasionally comes home to visit his neighbor Archie Brubaker. Archie also knew Stargirl, and they spend much of their time together reminiscing about her. In addition, while Leo does not attend school reunions, his friend Kevin does, and Kevin tells him Stargirl’s legacy lives on: the school now has a “Sunflowers” club where members promise to do something nice for someone else every day, and the school band includes a ukulele player.
The story ends with Leo wondering—and hoping, and ultimately believing—that he will one day “get another chance” with his Stargirl.
Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3115
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 for a little while, and then people feel the need to snap back to “normalcy.”
Stargirl is the epitome of individuality. She wears unusual clothing, she sings with a ukulele, she gives gifts to strangers and she decorates her desk at school with cloth and a flower. She doesn’t hear people talking about her, and she does what she thinks is good.
Individuality erupts at MAHS after Thanksgiving with Stargirl leading the way. Apathy is pushed aside. School spirit booms, students wear unusual clothes and formerly unpopular clubs are now full. The students are looking forward to a great basketball season after years of losing. Leo thinks it is a miracle. However, Archie Brubaker, Leo’s mentor, says it best: ”The trouble with miracles is that they don’t last long.”
Stargirl does not try to look and act like everyone else until Leo asks her to do so to their mutual shunning. She chooses to lose her identity for him until she realizes that it really does not matter if she dresses like everyone else. She is who she is.
Love and Happiness
Of Stargirl, Leo recalls that she was, “bendable light: she shone around every corner of my day.” Leo learns to appreciate the small things in life and to watch people. She teaches him to see the “invisible” things in life, and he makes her happy. She has a happy wagon in her room. At the height of their romance, out of twenty rocks Stargirl has seventeen rocks in her “happy wagon.” And, he learns that it was she who had given him the porcupine ties a couple of years before when he helped her deliver cards and gifts to strangers. She teaches him to enjoy life, and he loves her for it.
Shunning and a Scapegoat
The Amish have a term for not talking to someone who refuses to follow the rules of their society. It is called shunning. It happens in high school all the time. In the novel, it happens after Leo finds himself in love with Stargirl. The students blame her for losing the key basketball game and the state title because she comforts the other team’s star player when he breaks his leg. And, they believe that it is her fault that they lost their next game to Red Rock. Stargirl becomes the scapegoat for their losses in sports. It is easy to blame someone who does not fight back. They did not want to talk to her or associate with Stargirl or Leo when she is with him.
When the romance begins, Leo can only see Stargirl. Then, he realizes that nobody is talking to him or her. Kevin tells him that the whole school has decided to not talk to them, but Stargirl never really notices. Leo goes to Archie for advice and after consulting the large cactus Senor Saguaro, Archie tells him “Whose affection do you value more, hers or the others?” Leo does not want to answer, nor does he want to choose. In the end he chooses the others and regrets it for the next fifteen years of his life.
Hillari continues to be jealous of Stargirl’s newfound attention and creates many problems and conflicts for Stargirl. She and her boyfriend Wayne Parr are the unnamed “cool” leaders of the school. Hillari does not want to be toppled from her perch and refuses to allow Stargirl to sing "Happy Birthday" to her. Hillari even dangles Cinnamon, Stargirl’s rat, over the stair railing, but in the end drops the rat to the floor. At the Ocotillo Ball, she demands that the band to stop playing the bunny hop and refuses to join in the fun. She takes the dance floor with Wayne trying to gain attention. In the end, she slaps Stargirl, but Stargirl just kisses her gently on the cheek and goes home.
Leo is the narrator who struggles with his own shyness and problems with nonconformity. The story he retells is when he was 16-years-old and is a junior at Mica Area High School. He was a shy boy who happens to fall for Stargirl. He helps with the high school show "Hot Seat" in the equipment room, as he always tends to want to watch from afar. Kevin, his best friend and Hot Seat host, pushes Leo to get Stargirl on the show. He follows her one day and then “chickens out” of following her further to talk to her.
He is completely intrigued by her, but he is too afraid to approach her until she sends him a Valentine card. When he thanks her for the card, he is head-over-heals in love. He wants to change and be like her. He can let himself go and have fun with her on the weekends, but by Monday he goes back into his shell. In the end, he betrays her by choosing “them” over her. Fifteen years after the last day he saw her, he is still thinking about her.
Susan “Stargirl” Caraway
Stargirl is home schooled before she attends MAHS. Before taking the name Stargirl, she called herself Pocket Mouse, Mudpie and then Hullygully. She changes her name when she outgrows it. She wears unusual clothes, asks silly questions and looks beyond the surface. Searching the newspaper for “filler,” she finds out people’s birthdays and sends them cards. She checks out bulletin boards to find people in need. Her pet rat Cinnamon goes with her most of the time in her sunflower decorated bag.
Stargirl does not understand what is “normal.” She is very empathetic and tries to do nice things for others. For example, when the opposing team, Red Rock, was losing badly to Mica, she left the crowded bleachers and court and chatted with the bus driver because she felt bad for the team even though she was a cheerleader for Mica.
Her mother and father are quite “normal.” Her dad works for Micatronics, and her mother sews costumes for play productions. She keeps her “office” at Archie’s house, where she keeps files on many people in town and makes her gifts of cards, scrapbooks, potted plants, etc.
Archie or A. H. (Archibald Hapwood) Brubaker
Archie is a retired professor, widow and paleontologist. He moved to Mica because he enjoys finding interesting bones and because he likes to be around children. On Saturdays, he opens his house of bones to local children of any age. During his “school,” he teaches students about anything from bones to toothpaste. Archie is the leader of Loyal Order of the Stone Bone club. All members receive a rawhide necklace with a fossil bone.
Archie is Leo and Stargirl’s mentor. Archie has a 30-foot, old cactus named Senor Saguaro. When Leo needs advice, Archie consults the cactus. Leo goes to Archie many times for advice. And, in the end, Leo finds out that Stargirl uses his back tool shed for her secret office.
Kevin is Leo’s best friend. He is a foil to Leo in that he is outgoing and talkative. He and Leo are in charge of the school show called "Hot Seat." He pushes Leo to get Stargirl on the show the first day they see her. Kevin calls him to come to the football game when she shows up and cheers for the other team. When the shunning begins, Kevin tells Leo the truth that he does not really want to hear and still sticks with him.
Dori is Stargirl’s only real friend at MAHS. When Stargirl changes for Leo, she becomes angry with her for caving in. She did not participate in the shunning, supports her when she won the oratory congest and sang with her in the Ukee Dukes band in the school courtyard.
Hillari is the typical “mean girl” at MAHS and a villainess. She is known for three things: her mouth, her boyfriend Wayne Parr and The Hoax. She creates many conflicts for Stargirl by picking on her and starts many rumors because she wants to remain the most popular girl in school. Hillari dangles Stargirl’s rat Cinnamon over the railing at school until Dori screams at her to stop. When she cannot get enough attention at the ball, she demands that the band quit playing the bunny hop and drags Wayne out on the dance floor as everyone else goes “bunny hopping” around the country club with Stargirl.
Wayne’s aspirations are to become a model for GQ. He has no passions, his grades are not great, and he is not an athlete. He is quiet but powerful and epitomizes “cool” at MAHS. When he said he will wear a powdered blue tux, all the boys buy powdered blue tuxes for the spring dance.
The character Stargirl is many things to many people. She is unusual, silly, creative, loving and some say a savior or martyr. Kelly Emmingler in the Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy writes that "she [Stargirl] is portrayed as the savior of Mica Area High School who suddenly appeared at school from out of town bringing laughter, kind-heartedness, and sunshine (or should I say "starshine") to the apathetic students of Mica High."
Stargirl experiences the usual ups and downs of a savior or martyr. She is popular one minute and then a social outcast the next. Apathy is the rallying cry of many middle class high schools today and it is the same at Mica Area High School. She continuously shows the students that acts of kindness are much better than acts of nothing. The cruelty they inflict seems to bounce off her. The last act of trying to "save" the students of Mica is her bunny-hop conga line that she leads over the swanky country club before disappearing and never to be heard from again.
In addition to being a savior, she is also a captivating individual who lives on the fringe of society. Stargirl fits in no clique; she is simply who she is, which scares most teenagers. She cannot be put in a box; she can never be a "them," only a Stargirl.
In an interview with Random House, Jerry Spinelli explained that he made the character Stargirl from many memories. However, his wife Eileen is the real-life person who embodies most of Stargirl's qualities. He believes that people can exist just like Stargirl in real life because Eileen exists. This should bring hope to all of us.
The novel Stargirl was a New York Times bestseller and an ALA Top Ten Best Book for Young Adults. It also received the 2003 Arizona Young Reader Award and the 2003 Iowa Teen Book Award.