STARGIRL,by Jerry Spinelli. (Knopf, $15.95; grades 6 and up.) Spinelli, whose novels, while realistic, often push the edge of believability, offers readers an eccentric tale with this book. Stargirl Caraway arrives at Mica Area High School wearing outlandish clothes, carrying a large canvas bag with a life-size sunflower painted on it, and toting a ukulele strapped across her back. At first, her fellow students are fascinated and curious. But when Stargirl picks up the ukulele at lunch and serenades the crowd with “I’m looking over a four-leaf clover that I’ve overlooked before,” they grow suspicious.
Stargirl, however, doesn’t seem to care. Aside from giving ukulele performances, she keeps a pet rat, named Cinnamon, in her bag; dances in the rain; and celebrates, in various ways, the successes of her fellow students. Then, during one of the last games of the football season, she does an impromptu bit of cheerleading that wins over many students. In fact, they not only embrace Stargirl, but they attempt to emulate her. A chorus of ukuleles plays in the lunchroom, flowers appear on desks, and the local pet shop runs out of rats.
Quirky behavior is not the only sign that Stargirl has had an influence on the student body. Those who’ve never been noticed or heard from before suddenly find their voices; they speak up in class, write letters to the editor of the school newspaper, form a camera club, and try out for the Spring Revue. In the halls, people smile at each other and, in many cases, share their personal triumphs and tragedies. Stargirl, for her part, is invited to join the cheerleading squad.
But that’s when the story takes a turn. It seems Stargirl can’t restrain herself from cheering regardless of which team scores. Initially, no one minds much because, for the first time in memory, the Mica Electrons basketball team looks like it may go undefeated and reach the state playoffs. The school soon becomes obsessed with winning, and when the Electrons lose a crucial game, Stargirl’s cheers for the opponent’s shots are blamed. Almost overnight she goes from being revered to despised and ignored.
One of the few students who do not reject Stargirl is the story’s narrator, Leo Borlock, who has become her boyfriend. At first, he barely notices that his admiration for Stargirl has isolated him from other students. As oblivious as she seems, he recognizes the selflessness at the heart of her strange behavior. But when Leo begins to be ostracized for his association with Stargirl, he too starts to have doubts.
The Stargirls, or free spirits, of the world are complicated, and Spinelli does an excellent job of demonstrating how they can embarrass and confuse young people in particular. But by book’s end, he also makes clear that Stargirl is an inspiration for many and that they’re better people for having known her.
—Stephen Del Vecchio
NELL & FLUFFY,by Anne Liersch, with illustrations by Christa Unzner. (North- South, $15.95; grades K-2.) Few of the many picture books published each year are more than trifles. Too often, it seems, mediocre stories or verse serve as vehicles for less-than-stellar illustrations. Because each book costs roughly $16, it’s hard to imagine anyone—parents, teachers, or librarians—shelling out money for the majority of titles that find their way into print.
Part of the problem is that kids’ books are written by adults. While these well- intentioned authors may think they know what appeals to kids—or worse, what kids need—many don’t seem to have a clue. They forget that children, like adults, love engaging narratives and complex true-to-life characters they recognize. In short, youngsters like books that hit them where they are, that compellingly touch on real-world concerns, joys, and heartaches.
Nell and Fluffy is right on target. An emotional roller coaster that will have kids smiling one minute and wiping away tears the next, the book addresses a familiar predicament of childhood: staying true to your heart in the face of ruthless peer pressure.
The story opens with Nell getting a guinea pig from her parents for her 6th birthday. For Nell, who has always wanted a live animal, it is love at first sight. She names her new pet Fluffy and promises to take good care of it. Everything is fine until Nell starts at a big new school right before her 7th birthday. There, she makes the mistake of bragging about Fluffy to some of her classmates and learns, to her horror, that guinea pigs are in fact “boring” and “for babies.”
Convinced that she needs a bigger and better pet, and that Mom and Dad won’t get her one with Fluffy around, Nell does something dreadful: She abandons the little animal in some bushes on her way to school and then lies to her parents, telling them she has given Fluffy away. Retreating to her room, she is hit with sorrow and remorse.
Throughout the book, Unzner’s watercolors, framed in winter blues and grays, are so expressive, so careful and precise, that young readers can tell from page to page exactly what Nell is feeling. As she sits there in her room, surrounded by a jumble of stuffed animals whose mournful eyes seem fixed on her, Nell’s anguish and shame are palpable.
Finally, Nell tells her parents what she has done, and, together, they mount a search to get Fluffy back. In the end, of course—this is a children’s book, after all—a chastened and wiser Nell miraculously recovers the abandoned pet.
Although the story has no specified setting, Liersch and Unzner, illustrator of the amusing “Meredith, the witch” books, are both German. As a result, Nell’s physical surroundings may seem a bit foreign to young Americans—her town, for example, has a decidedly Old World look—but her predicament and the emotional landscape this exceptional book covers will be very familiar.
—Blake Hume Rodman
TUPAG THE DREAMER,by Kerry Hannula Brown, with illustrations by Linda Saport. (Cavendish, $15.95; grades K-2.) In a dark, frozen land void of sunlight, where only stars and a cold, white moon illuminate the sky, there is a village on the edge of a sea. Life is hard for its people; searching for food takes up most of their time. But one villager, Tupag, refuses to help out. He simply lies in the snow, dreaming of a more hospitable place where berries grow in abundance, fish throw themselves on spears, and a great moon radiates warmth. His seeming laziness annoys the others, and, one day, they send him packing. But Raven, the creator of the world, is watching. He has long enjoyed Tupag’s wonderful dreams, and to show his gratitude, he offers to make one of them come true. Tupag wisely chooses the dream about the warm moon, and Raven obliges, changing the villagers’ lives forever and turning Tupag into a local hero. Brown, a native of Alaska, has written an engaging myth about the power of dreams and dreamers. But what really make this book a winner are Saport’s impressionistic illustrations. Using pastels—particularly blues and greens—on black paper, she creates a cold, mysterious world that will have youngsters shivering but also gasping at its beauty.
THE OTHER SIDE,by Jacqueline Woodson, with illustrations by E.B. Lewis. (Putnam, $16.99; grades K-2.) This is the story of two girls—one black, the other white—who, over the course of a summer, forge a friendship across a wood- rail fence that divides their town by race. Woodson, author of several novels for teenagers, including the acclaimed If You Come Softly, writes here in the simple, innocent voice of the young black girl, Clover. Both she and the white girl, Annie, have been told by their parents not to cross the fence, but no one has said anything about sitting on it. “That summer,” an older Clover tells us, “me and Annie sat on that fence and watched the whole wide world around us.” Lewis’ warm, light-filled watercolors add nuance and life to this gentle yet moving story about the difficult subject of racial segregation.
JOEY PIGZA LOSES CONTROL,by Jack Gantos. (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, $16; grades 4-6.) Gantos’ Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key was a harrowing, heart- felt, and hilarious account of a 9-year-old boy and his mother coming to grips with the boy’s hyperactivity. Now Dad is making noise about visitation rights, so against her better judgment, Mom drives Joey to Pittsburgh, where he’ll spend six weeks with his father. At first, things don’t seem so bad. But after he starts drinking, Joey’s dad decides that, as men, neither he nor Joey need the “crutches” that women with their “girl rules” insist on providing. Pretty soon both Joey’s hyperactivity and his father’s drinking are getting out of control. But the boy musters the presence of mind to call Mom before disaster strikes. Despite the potentially grim subject matter, Gantos once again displays the good intentions, humor, and love at the heart of Joey’s family, whatever its troubles. And Joey comes to better understand both himself and his father.
THE GIRL WHO SPUN GOLD,by Virginia Hamilton, with illustrations by Leo and Diane Dillon. (Blue Sky Press, $16.95; grades K-2.) Most readers, young and old, will recognize this West Indian folk tale as a variation of the ever- popular Rumpelstiltskin story about a disgusting little man—in this case, Lit’mahn Bittyun—who spins straw into gold for a desperate young woman who has lied about her abilities. While the plot may be familiar, the tone and appearance of this book are strikingly original. In her retelling, Hamilton has preserved much of the “island” dialect, giving the story a lilting, almost musical, quality when read aloud. For their part, the Dillons eschewed West Indian themes, choosing instead to give the illustrations a decidedly West African look. Thanks to their dazzling use of acrylic and metallic paint, each page literally glows.
NORY RYAN’S SONG,by Patricia Reilly Giff. (Delacorte Press, $15.95; grades 4- 6.) In this novel, Giff tells the story of the devastating famine that swept through Ireland in the mid-19th century from the perspective of a 12-year-old girl. What’s known as the Great Potato Famine began in 1845, when a fungus infection caused the widespread failure of the potato crops on which much of the Irish peasantry depended for sustenance. By the time the famine was over, in 1852, more than 1 million Irish citizens—out of just 8 million total—had died of starvation or disease, and another 1.5 million had emigrated to North America and England. Nory, her grandfather, and her siblings are hoping that, when her widowed father returns from working on a fishing boat, he will have money to pay the rent and buy food. But as time passes and he does not return, they’re forced to scour the countryside for edible plants and, finally, to try to snatch eggs from birds’ nests perched along treacherous sea cliffs. Eventually, Nory’s family emigrates to America, but she chooses to stay behind in her homeland.
TOYS!Amazing Stories Behind Some Great Inventions,by Don Wulffson, with illustrations by Laurie Keller. (Henry Holt and Company, $15.95; grades 3-6.) Wulffson has a good nose for stories, and many of the tales behind popular toys are quite entertaining. For example, the U.S. Army, General Electric, Yale University, and the New Yorker magazine all played crucial roles in the success of Silly Putty. And inventor Richard James thought that he was developing a stabilizing device for ships when he suddenly knocked the springlike object off a shelf and saw it “walk” to the floor, giving birth to the Slinky. This book offers 25 briskly paced chapters in all, and they cover the histories of toys ranging from tops to video games.
—Blake Hume Rodman and Stephen Del Vecchio