As homeschooling has become increasingly common and familiar, we are seeing more and more works of popular fiction, movies, and so on with homeschooled characters. This is especially true for children’s fiction. In this post and many more to come I will discuss some of these cultural products, beginning here with Jerry Spinelli’s Stargirl(Knopf, 2000) and Love, Stargirl (Knopf, 2007).
Spinelli is a giant in contemporary children’s literature. Of his 25 books the best known are probably Maniac Magee (1990), which won the Newbery Award, and Stargirl, which has been translated into 40 languages and has spawned “Stargirl Societies” at schools around the country.
Stargirl has sold over a million copies domestically. Its eponymous heroine had been homeschooled by her engineer father and costume designer mother until tenth grade when she decides she wants to give public school a try. At school she meets and falls in love with Leo, who narrates the story for us. Leo describes Stargirl’s unconventional dress and behavior. An excerpt:
Several times in those early weeks of September, she showed up in something outrageous. A 1920s flapper dress. An Indian buckskin. A kimono. One day she wore a denim miniskirt with green stockings, and crawling up one leg was a parade of enamel ladybug and butterfly pins. ‘Normal’ for her were long, floor-brushing pioneer dresses and skirts.
In class, “she was always flapping her hand in the air, asking questions, though the question often had nothing to do with the subject. One day she asked a question about trolls–in U.S. History class.”
The character that is created is like many of the strong, independent girls that populate successful children’s books, but more so. Also like many other children’s books, Stargirl celebrates individualism and going against the flow. The flow is represented, here as elsewhere, by public schools and the mundanes who attend them. As Leo describes:
Mica Area High School–MAHS–was not exactly a hotbed of nonconformity. There were individual variants here and there, of course, but within pretty narrow limits we all wore the same clothes, talked the same way, ate the same food, listened to the same music. 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.
Another staple of children’s lit is the wise old person who teaches the protagonist profound lessons. Stargirl‘s version of this character is Archie Brubaker, a retired paleontologist whose house is filled with bones, who communes in Spanish with an old cactus, and who tends to speak in riddles and questions. Leo describes his effect on students:
He was not certified to teach in Arizona, but that did not stop him. Every Saturday morning his house became a school. Fourth-graders, twelfth-graders–all were welcome. No tests, no grades, no attendance record. Just the best school most of us had ever gone to. He covered everything from toothpaste to tapeworms and somehow made it all fit together. He called us the Loyal Order of the Stone Bone.
The central dilemma of the book is whether or not Stargirl can keep her individual genius in the oppressive atmosphere of Mica High. She does, but in the process she loses Leo. Despite his best efforts, Leo ends up valuing school popularity more than the love of the strange and wonderful Stargirl. The book’s nearly flawless plotting and tone have given it a well-deserved reputation of greatness.
Seven years after Stargirl, Spinelli published a sequel, Love, Stargirl. My 12 year-old daughter and I both agree that it isn’t nearly as good as the original, but the homeschooling theme is more prominent. This book takes the form of a 275 page letter from Stargirl to her estranged love Leo, describing her life after moving from Arizona to Pennsylvania. Given her experiences at Mica High, she returns to homeschooling in PA. Here’s how she describes her curriculum:
So I have to meet all the state requirements, right? –math, English, etc. Which I do. But I don’t stop there. I have other courses too. Unofficial ones. Like Principles of Swooning. Life Under Rocks. Beginner’s Whistling. Elves. We call it our shadow curriculum (Don’t tell the State…). My favorite shadow subject is Elements of Nothingness…
[Stargirl likes to meditate in a Zen-like fashion]. Throughout Love, Stargirl we see both the benefits and costs of her education. She is free to do amazing things like construct a Stonehengeesque sun calendar, learn botany by intensive gardening, go on field trips for poetic inspiration, and befriend interesting people young and old. But a gnawing sense of loneliness accompanies her throughout the book.
Spinelli’s positive and nuanced view of homeschooling comes out of his own experience. His wife Eileen was his inspiration for Stargirl and together they have raised six children. One of his daughters-in-law homeschools five of Spinelli’s grandchildren. Spinelli noted in an interview that Stargirl’s “parentally provided education does contribute in some measure to the kind of person she is.”
In my view homeschooling is a crucial plot device for Spinelli and many other writers, for it allows for eccentricity. Stargirl‘s success is due entirely to its compelling heroine. Its central dilemma is the one faced daily in every school in the nation: how to maintain a sense of fidelity to one’s unique identity given peer pressure to conform to social stereotypes. Scholars like Gary Wyatt and Murray Milner have described in sociological terms the status hierarchies and groupthink of schooled teens. Individualism and conformity is the central tension in much of tween television, best illustrated by the High School Musical phenomenon. It is not surprising that writers of children’s lit, whose most common moral message is, “be yourself!,” see in homeschooling a way out of the coolness matrix. But at the same time Spinelli recognizes that liberation from peer socialization can lead to loneliness. Loneliness may turn out, as in Stargirl’s case, to be a long-term blessing in that it provides leisure for solitude, for contemplation and spiritual growth. But it can also be depressing. Stargirl and Love, Stargirl, capture that tension beautifully.