This post reviews Wendy Mass’ children’s book Every Soul A Star (New York: Little, Brown, and Co., 2009).
Wendy Mass is a popular author of a fast growing catalogue of children’s books (nine so far). Every Soul a Star joins a growing list of recent children’s books that include homeschooled characters. I read it this week-end, which was not easy to do because two of my daughters kept stealing it from me to read it themselves. For this post I’ll begin by talking about how Mass uses homeschooling and then turn the post over to two guest bloggers, my daughters Rachel (age 13) and Susanna (age 8). The basic plot follows three young teens, all of whom will converge on the Moon Shadow campground in Arkansas to observe a full solar eclipse. One of main characters, Ally, has grown up at the campground with her younger brother and scientist parents. Since the camp is so remote, the children have been homeschooled their entire lives. Ally and her brother Kenny are precocious and articulate but naive about the world of popular culture and teen-speak. Here’s Ally describing herself on the first page of the book,
When you’re homeschooled, you have a lot of books. I…know how to find every constellation in the sky, and that the brightest star in any constellation is called the Alpha. I know all the constellations becaue my father taught them to me, and I know about the Alpha because it is also my name. But my family and friends call me Ally. (1)
Ally’s family uses a conventional approach to homeschool. Mass calls it “homeschool-in-a-box.” One of the characters describes it this way, “It’s different than regular homeschooling–it’s more on our own. The curriculum arrives in a big box and then we have all year to go through it.” (178) Given that this is a science-minded family and that Ally knows that our bodies are made of atoms that came from stars that exploded billions of years ago (p.318) the box certainly didn’t come from Bob Jones or A Beka [as an aside, the impoverished view of science most homeschooling curricula promulgate has been in the news lately]. Something more like Calvert seems appropriate to this family.
As the eclipse approaches, hundreds of people flock to the campground. Ally meets several other kids her age and is confronted with the reality of a foreign youth culture she doesn’t understand. Moreover, she learns from her parents that after the eclipse they will leave the campground for good and she will have to move to the suburbs and go to school. Through her visitor-friends she is reminded of the reality of grades (“I haven’t thought about what grade I was in for a long time” she says), personal hygiene (“how am I going to survive in a real school if I can’t even brush my hair?”) and relationship drama. Ally sums it up,
Out here Kenny and I have grown up in this wonderful little bubble where you don’t have to worry about how you look, how people judge you, or even what channel to watch on the nonexistent television. Our choices are so easy. (p.230)
One of the visitors to the campground is a girl named Bree. Though her parents are also scientists, Bree is the classic teen mallrat, obsessed with clothes, music, boys, modelling. Yet as the days go by at Moon Shadow Bree finds her carefully cultivated school persona slipping, and her real self, buried since childhood, re-emerging. The key moment of transition occurs when Bree, after much protestation, finally looks through a telescope and sees the moon up close,
It’s so beautiful and mysterious and powerful. This enormous rock controls so much of what happens on our planet…. I’m struck by the perfect way the universe fits together, like a big elaborate watch that keeps perfect time. Wait, why am I thinking about the tides and watches? What’s wrong with me? I step back from it like I’ve been burned. My head feels heavy and I know why I was so scared to look into the telescope. The thing that I’ve smothered since third grade has resurfaced. My inner geek has been released. (235)
If there’s a central message about homeschooling in this book, it’s that homeschooling has the power to release the inner geek in us all. For Wendy Mass, that’s clearly a good thing. Like so many children’s books, the central theme of this story is of finding the authentic self. The growth her characters experience is a growth away from the stereotypes and status markers that pass for reality in schooled culture and into a genuineness that is willing to share creative impulses, personal weakness and embarrassment, childhood dreams and feelings. In this way, Mass’ take on homeschooling is much like that of other children’s authors I’ve covered on this blog.
But homeschooling aside, is it a good book? Here follow the reflections of two of my kids:
In this book, Wendy Mass takes three stereotypical characters (the free-spirit natural homeschooler, the shallow beauty queen, and the overweight loner) and delves beneath their outer layers. Telling the story in intervals through each character’s point of view allows the reader to understand and relate to the characters and to appreciate their transformations. Through some unusual circumstances, the three are thrown together and become friends, but Mass does not rely on children’s book cliches and common plot formulas, making the book interesting and real. Especially admirable was the fact that none of the characters fell in love or kissed at the end of the book, although that was a definite possibility, and I was actually expecting it.
Personally, my favorite storyline was Bree, the shallow beauty queen. She arrives at Moon Shadow, the secluded campground, with derision and anger at being removed from her social scene at school. Obsessed with fashion and disdainful of her parents and sister’s charisma, she immediately bonds with the only ‘normal’ boy at the campground and sincerely hates wearing borrowed, unfashionable clothes. However, she slowly realizes that she has been living in a blissful bubble of ignorance. Seeing the moon through a telescope releases her ‘inner geek’, a frightening prospect, but an eye-opening experience that cascades into, among other things, an interest in space junk and an acceptance of a life without the overwhelming importance of lip gloss and mascara.
Jack, the overweight loner, had the most poignant and powerful storyline. He begins the book as a failing student, spending his time drawing and reading in his tree house. Faced with the prospect of either summer school or an eclipse excursion with his science teacher, he opts for the latter and discovers that he has value and worth, even if not in the ways he expected. He becomes more confident and social, opening up to near strangers and discovering a gift of bonding with children. His transformation is perhaps the most radical of the three narrators; although it is not as apparent as Bree’s, his personality has undergone serious transformation, and his life is now on a very different track than it probably would have gone on had he not attended the eclipse trip.
Ally does not change in the way Bree or Jack does, but her acquisition of perspective matures her, and allows her to accept (and even embrace) the changes soon to come in her life. Her new-found friends help her understand that a character transplanted into another setting is still the same character, although the plot and conflicts change. Her love of astronomy can still flourish in the suburbs, but it will take on a different form, and she does not need to suppress it to ‘fit in’ or ‘be accepted’.
In the end, I thought this was a great book for both children and adults, and it also contained a good bit of astronomy knowledge (akin to the Greek myths in the Percy Jackson series), so it was both educational and enjoyable. It was fulfilling, but not in a ‘happily ever after way’, and like any good book, it tied up the ends while still leaving some things up to the imagination of the reader.
When people come to Moon Shadow,
they realize a way of life.
New and different to all,
even without a mall.
Jack comes to Moon Shadow,
in fear of a lame summer.
He finds a new heart,
and maybe a new start.
Bree comes to Moon Shadow,
forced by her uncool parents.
Inner geek finds her,
More real than eyeliner.
Ally lives at Moon Shadow,
fears of leaving possess her.
Real friends help her through the day,
But she’ll still have to move away.
When people come to Moon Shadow,
they realize a way of life.
new and different to all,
even without a mall.