Daring to Be Different
In a moving and highly engaging tale about the vagaries of adolescent peer pressure, Newbery Medal winner Jerry Spinelli tells the story of Stargirl, a high school student who is startlingly different from everyone else. The need to conform -- and unabashed curiosity about those who don't -- are at the heart of this touching tale, which aptly demonstrates the peaks and pitfalls of popularity.
Sixteen-year-old high school student Leo Borlock knows how to fit in at Mica High School. He plays the game like everyone else but is more enthralled than most when a new girl comes to school. Stargirl Caraway is her name, or at least the name she is using for now. And after 15 years of homeschooling, she is decidedly different from even the oddest high school students at Mica High. First there's her unusual name, one in a long line of odd names that she has chosen to go by, ignoring her given name of Susan. Then there's the way she looks, shunning makeup and wearing long granny dresses. But all of that is small potatoes when compared to her behavior, which is as weird and bizarre as any of the students at Mica High have ever seen.
Stargirl carries a pet rat around with her and lets it sit on her shoulder whenever she serenades her fellow students with her ukulele. She leaves cards and small gifts on students' desks and in neighborhood doorways. She somehow knows the birthdays of everyone at the school and makes a point of singing "Happy Birthday" to them in the lunchroom. She often laughs when there is no joke and dances when there is no music. She is outspoken and friendly, yet has no friends of her own. And during basketball season, when asked to join the cheerleading squad, she cheers for every basket made, regardless of which team made the score.
There's no doubt about it, Stargirl marches to the beat of an all together different drummer. At first, the other students at Mica High are suspicious of her and think she might be a plant, someone placed in the school as a spy or as part of some bizarre psychology experiment. But Stargirl's whimsical ways and optimistic spirit eventually prove to be irresistible and before long, paranoia gives way to utter fascination. And the most fascinated of all is Leo, who is falling head over heels in love with this quirky girl.
The tide turns swiftly, however, and just as Leo and Stargirl are becoming an item, the student body suddenly decides Stargirl is a freak and a menace. She is shunned by nearly everyone as curiosity turns to disgust. While Stargirl seems blissfully unaware of this shift, Leo sees it, hates it, and starts pressuring Stargirl to try to conform. Solely to please Leo she does so, dressing like everyone else, behaving like everyone else, and even taking back her given name. But in the process of trying to make everyone like her, she loses the very magic and mystery that Leo has come to love in the first place. What's more, despite the changes, she is still shunned. In the end, Stargirl goes back to her old ways and her individuality will prove to be a key turning point in the lives of many, especially Leo's.
Spinelli has crafted a tale as magically appealing and fascinatingly offbeat as is its title character. He aptly captures the poignant excitement of young love, the bitter agonies of peer rejection, and the incredible cruelties teenagers all too often inflict on one another. Amid it all is this wondrous generosity of spirit that is Stargirl, a character who proves to be both enthralling and inspirational. Her story is a celebratory, albeit cautionary, tale about being openly accepting of others while remaining true to oneself.
Read an Excerpt
When I was little, my Uncle Pete had a necktie with a porcupine painted on it. I though that necktie was just about the neatest thing in the world. Uncle Pete would stand patiently before me while I ran my fingers over the silky surface, half expecting to be stuck by one of the quills. Once, he let me wear it. I kept looking for one of my own, but I could never find one.
I was twelve when we moved from Pennsylvania to Arizona. When Uncle Pete came to say goodbye, he was wearing the tie. I though he did so to give me one last look at it, and I was grateful. But then, with a dramatic flourish, he whipped off the tie and draped it around my neck. "It's yours," he said. "Going-away present."
I loved that porcupine tie so much that I decided to start a collection. Two years after we settled in Arizona, the number of ties in my collection was still one. Where do you find a porcupine necktie in Mica, Arizona - or anywhere else, for that matter?
On my fourteenth birthday, I read about myself in the local newspaper. The family section ran a regular feature about kids on their birthdays, and my mother had called in some info. The last sentence read: "As a hobby, Leo Borlock collects porcupine neckties."
Several days later, coming home from school, I found a plastic bag on our front step. Inside was a gift-wrapped package tied with yellow ribbon. The tag said, "Happy Birthday!" I opened the package. It was a porcupine necktie. Two porcupines were tossing darts with their quills, while a third was picking its teeth.
I inspected the box, the tag, the paper. Nowhere could I find the giver's name. I asked my parents. I asked my friends. I called my Uncle Pete. Everyone denied knowing anything about it.
At the time I simply considered the episode a mystery. It did not occur to me that was being watched. We were all being watched.
"Did you see her?"
That was the first thing Kevin said to me on the first day of school, eleventh grade. We were waiting for the bell to ring.
"See who?" I said.
"Hah!" He craned his neck, scanning the mob. He had witnessed something remarkable; it showed on his face. He grinned, still scanning. "You'll know."
There were hundreds of us, milling about, calling names, pointing to summer-tanned faces we hadn't seen since June. Our interest in each other was never keener than during the fifteen minutes before the first bell of the first day.
I punched his arm. "Who?"
The bell rang. We poured inside.
I heard it again in homeroom, a whispered voice behind me as we said the Pledge of Allegiance.
"You see her?"
I heard it in the hallways. I heard it in English and Geometry:
"Did you see her?"
Who could it be? A new student? A spectacular blonde from California? Or from back East, where many of us came from? Or one of those summer makeovers, someone who leaves in June looking like a little girl and returns in September as a full-bodied woman, a ten-week miracle?
And then in Earth Sciences I heard a name: "Stargirl."
I turned to the senior slouched behind me. "Stargirl?" I said. "What kind of name is that?"
"That's it. Stargirl Caraway. She said it in homeroom."
And then I saw her. At lunch. She wore an off-white dress so long it covered her shoes. It had ruffles around the neck and cuffs and looked like it could have been her great-grandmother's wedding gown. Her hair was the color of sand. IT fell to her shoulders. Something was strapped across her back, but it wasn't a book bag. At first I thought it was a miniature guitar. I found out later it was a ukulele.
She did not carry a lunch tray. She did carry a large canvas bag with a life-size sunflower painted on it. The lunchroom was dead silent as she walked by. She stopped at an empty table, laid down her bag, slung the instrument strap over he chair, and sat down. She pulled a sandwich from the bag and started to eat.
Half the lunchroom kept staring, half starting buzzing.
Kevin was grinning. "Wha'd I tell you?"
"She's in tenth grade," he said. "I hear she's been homeschooled till now."
"Maybe that explains it," I said.
Her back was to us, so I couldn't see her face. No one sat with her, but at the tables next to hers kids were cramming two to a seat. She didn't seem to notice. She seemed marooned in a sea of staring buzzing faces.
Kevin was grinning again. "You thinking what I'm thinking?" he said.
I grinned back. I nodded. "Hot Seat."
Hot Seat was our in-school TV show. We had started it the year before. I was producer/director, Kevin was on-camera host. Each month he interviewed a student. So far most of them had been honor student types, athletes, model citizens. Noteworthy in the usual ways, but not especially interesting.
Suddenly Kevin's eyes boggled. The girl was picking up her ukulele. And now she was strumming it. And now she was singing! Strumming away, bobbing her head and shoulders, singing "I'm looking over a four-leaf clover that I over-looked before." Stone silence all around. Then came the sound of a single person clapping. I looked. It was the lunch-line cashier.
And now the girl was standing, slinging her bag over one shoulder and marching among the tables, strumming and singing and strutting and twirling. Head swung, eyes followed her, mouths hung open. Disbelief. When she came by our table, I got my first good look at her face. She wasn't gorgeous, wasn't ugly. A sprinkle of freckles crossed the bridge of her nose. Mostly she looked like a hundred other girls in school, except for two things. She wore no makeup, and her eyes were the biggest I had ever seen, like deer's eyes caught in headlights. She twirled as she went past, he flaring skirt brushing my pantleg, and then she marched out of the lunchroom.
From among the tables came three slow claps. Someone whistled. Someone yelped.
Kevin and I gawked at each other.
Kevin held up his hands and framed a marquee in the air. "Hot Seat! Coming Attraction - Stargirl!"
I slapped the table. "Yes!"
We slammed hands.
From the Hardcover edition.