I once worked with a lady whose cat talked to her. “She meows my name,” the lady said—over and over—always with a decided nod of her head. I cannot recall her name with certainty, and, to be honest, I can only remember three things about her: 1) She was always impeccably dressed, something that caught me as odd, especially since 90% of our job was running. 2) She had a daughter in the military of whom she was very proud. 3) Her cat talked to her.

Her coworkers thought she was crazy, but I was more intrigued than anything.

She talked constantly about that cat.

Our coworkers would attack her story, pointing out that her name sounded like a normal cat sound. They would do more than think her crazy; they called her crazy, too.

But she stood firm with her story.

I was amazed by her, not because her cat talked to her, but rather that she remained visibly unaffected by the opinions of others.  When it comes to things such as talking cats and the like, my default is flexible cynicism: I’m presented with something that can’t possibly be true, and yet, I fully acknowledge that there are many things that defy my limited understanding.

So “can’t possibly be true” is a bit fluid for me.

Her superpower was flying, or at least hovering, and I was in awe of her. No matter the nastiness of the gossip that pooled at her feet, it stayed at her feet. She rose above the shit, and it simply didn’t touch her.

She’s one of my heroes, a Stargirl. I just didn’t know it at the time.

“Of all the unusual things about Stargirl, this struck me as the most remarkable. Bad things did not stick to her. Correction, her bad things did not stick to her. Our bad things stuck very much to her.”

This is Leo speaking of Stargirl, the titular character in a book by Jerry Spinelli.

It’s YA (young adult) literature, a book specifically for high school readers.  Its language is simple; its themes are not.

With painted-on freckles and a ukulele accompaniment, she sings “Happy Birthday” to whoever is around. She cheers for both teams during sports games. She performs random acts of kindness. She wears clothes that no one in high school could imagine ever wearing.

She is chaos and flux in a high school of predictability.

She’s crazy, they say.

But she stands firm.

We see Stargirl through the memory of Leo’s gaze; this is important because the reader sees both the limitations of Leo’s adolescent experiences and the wistfulness attached to complicated memory.  Because of Leo, we see Stargirl live through her individuality–it appears pretentious and over-the-top, but she is her own real deal.  When she attempts to staunch the flow of her uniqueness, she doesn’t do it to avoid the criticism of others. She does it to earn approval.  Not only do readers see Stargirl’s attempts to change, we see Leo’s actual change despite his best efforts.

Seen through the eyes of Leo, Stargirl is crazy, different, and far beyond the scope of his experience. There’s an underlying conformity to his life: certain people do certain things; all people do certain things. There are things that are just not done in (high school culture.) But the reader can also see her strength of character, her deep compassion, and her eagerness to please as well. We see the excitement of new love, the dangers of standing out and doing your own thing as a young person, and the effects of bullies who never lay a finger on their victims.

We see not only the risk of standing out, of doing our own thing, but also the dangers of loving someone who does her own thing.

It takes just as much courage, I think, to not only be who you really are, but to also love someone who is in the throes of self-definition.

It’s heady and exciting, but it also exacts a price.  Fitting in, just getting by, doing what is comfortable are no longer options.  It’s like being adrift at sea: always in motion but never quite able to set your feet on solid ground.

Perhaps my Cat Lady had already navigated those waters by the time I met her; perhaps she never wanted to be anything different than who she really was.

I’ll probably never know.

But I want to celebrate the Stargirls (and Starboys, for that matter). I want to talk to the Cat Whisperers and the ukulele players, those brave souls doing their own thing. Those people to whom their own bad things do not stick, those who are too busy living their lives that they have no time for the waste-products of others.

I *love* this book. I want everyone to read this book. It’s funny and sweet and sad, and a very important book, I think. It’s a damn near perfect book, and you can find it here.

 

 

Stargirl
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