Learning About Otherness

Jerry Spinelli’s Stargirl might be one of the most beautiful YA books ever written. But we won’t look at it here for its merits as a book about teen angst and young love. We’ll take the whole, lovely package and think about it in terms of what it teaches us about difference and non-conformity.

Stargirl, Jerry Spinelli Book Cover | Source: Wikipedia

Sixteen year old Leo Borlock is harmless and startlingly normal. He laughs, he has friends, he has a hobby. We have here, a character who is the very epitome of normalcy, a not-too-quiet not-too-loud person who floats through the corridors of his teeming, bubbling high school and, every now and then, gets swept by school-wide waves of excitement and intensity.

Then Stargirl Carraway enters, riding just such a wave. She’s new in school, and she’s crazy. She carries a pet rat to classes. She dresses like a gypsy. She strums an ukulele and sings to her schoolmates on their birthdays. She has the most gorgeous eyes Leo has ever seen. The students of Mica High are wary of her. Her energy is absurd, magical. They are captivated by her spirit, shocked by her principles. They love her when she cheers for the school team, they hate her when she celebrates someone else’s win. What is she anyway? What’s her deal?

And that’s what everyone, including the mildly lovesick Leo, wants to know. How can they define her when she doesn’t seem to fit into their definitions of anything?

Stargirl is a series of slow, spellbinding sequences. We watch as Stargirl shows Leo how ‘normal’ she really is, that she wants love and belonging as much as the next person. We follow them on long walks into the shining Arizona desert. Most painful of all, we watch as the vicious, confused, terrified teens of Mica High shun and shatter Stargirl.

Jerry Spinelli

Spinelli shows us something obvious in this book: we cannot tolerate otherness. We reject what we don’t know, what we cannot understand. And then he suggests something that suddenly appears equally obvious: beneath the outward differences we are all alike. And also: love and acceptance can exist even between people who cannot understand or categorise one another.

By crafting his novel such that the rejection, the difference, and the love are pinned only to delicate, half-magical characters inhabiting a delicate, half-magical world, Spinelli has created a starting point for discussions on real-world differences of all sorts. At one level Stargirl is the beautiful story of a single girl’s struggle to stay different, and of Leo’s struggle to stay in love with difference. But it’s also a story we can all use to think about acceptance and tolerance, to keep in mind as we navigate our perilous social worlds and watch differences of identity tear our societies apart.

ADDITIONAL READING

Similar Titles

  • Very Far Away From Anywhere Else by Ursula LeGuin
  • Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sanchez
  • To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  • The Things Around Your Neck: Short Stories by Chimammanda Ngozi Adichie

For Slightly Younger Readers

  • Sahara Special by Esme Raji Codell
  • Wonder by R.J. Palacio

For Young Readers

  • The Sneetches by Dr. Seuss
  • Dad David, Baba Chris and Me by Ed Merchant
  • Mukand and Riaz by Nina Sabnani

-Dakshayini Suresh for Ever After

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