My friend Tom recently recommended one of his favorite books to me. It was Stargirl, by Jerry Spinelli. I liked it a lot. But my review has less to do with praising Spinelli than with lamenting summaries on the backs of books and bemoaning reader’s guide questions.
The book summary and reader’s guide questions in Stargirl all lead us to thinking about conformity. Who is popular in high school, and how do we accept someone who is different? Although that’s a worthy topic, I think Stargirl is much more. I think it’s about opening ourselves up to a spirit of complete selflessness. Falling in love with hope. Standing by the downtrodden. And okay, maybe a little about nonconformity.
Paul Simon once declined to explain his lyrics to someone, and though it may have seemed snooty, I understand why he wouldn’t want to. If he had wanted to summarize the meaning of the song, he would have done so in a final verse. And as for guide questions, could any list of ten questions lead us to understanding a Paul Simon song, given our many backgrounds, and the many layers of meaning, and the instinctual understanding of a message sent through rhythm?
Here’s something I think Paul Simon knew. I think he knew that to explain a song (which is anyway unexplainable) takes away the opportunity for the listener to bring deeper meaning to the song through their past experiences. I think he knew that there might be more wisdom in his song than he even meant to put in it.
And so our Stargirl summaries and prepackaged questions limit us.
Archie, the “wise grandfather” figure in Stargirl tells Leo, the point of view character, that he’ll know Stargirl (the story’s “nonconformist”) “more by your questions than by her answers.” I find it sad that we have a list of questions given to us at the end of Stargirl. How will we know Stargirl at all if we don’t come up with our own questions?
Is Stargirl real? That is the question that Leo and the other students keep asking themselves. Spinelli doesn’t even let them know that that is their question, and therefore an important clue, but it is what defines them. Is that kind of spirit a real possibility in this world, they wonder.
Yes, I recommend Stargirl. And I recommend that you let your mind wander to which questions it may. I recommend that you not conform to the readers who stick to the guide questions. Follow Stargirl, this rara avis, into the desert and return changed, if you dare.