Top 100 Children’s Novels (#65-61)
#65 Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild (1936)
(#2)(#4)(#4)(#5)(#5)(#6)(#6)(#7)(#8)(#9)(#9)(#10) – 57 points
I loved all the "shoe" books, but this one is the best. I always did enjoy a good orphan book! – Lori Erokan
Although Skating Shoes a close second (more orphans). – Constance Martin
Ah, life backstage! How I loved Streatfeild’s independent children and their glamorous (though penurious) lives! – Laura Amy Schlitz
I ask you: in this day and age, where else can you find a book about a girl who performs in a ballet of A Midsummer Night’s Dream by night and is a budding mechanic and aviatrix by day? Nowhere, that’s where. And it’s precisely because of Petrova Fossil that this book has maintained its high levels of awesome over the years. – Brooke Shirts (Casa Camisas)
Please note that every single person who voted for this title, all twelve of them, spelled author Noel Streatfeild’s last name correctly. I consider that no mean feat. If you are accustomed to the "i before e except after c" rule, it makes you positively itchy to spell her name right. The dedicated do it with aplomb.
The description of the book according to the Noel Streatfeild website reads: "Ballet Shoes tells the story of Pauline, Petrova and Posy Fossil, who were adopted as babies by Great Uncle Matthew (or "Gum"). Pauline was the only survivor from a shipwrecked boat, Petrova the orphaned child of a Russian couple, and Posy the daughter of a widowed ballet dancer. They are looked after by Gum’s great-niece, Sylvia, and her old nurse, Nana. When Gum goes away on an extended journey, money becomes tight, and Syliva decides to take in boarders. Two of the boarders, Doctor Smith and Doctor Jakes, take over the education of the children (much to the relief of Sylvia, who had been teaching them herself when she could no longer afford to send them to school.) Doctor Jakes tells Pauline that ‘the three of you might make the name of Fossil really important, really worth while, and if you do, it’s all your own.’ As a result of this, the three sisters make a vow: ‘We three Fossils vow to try and put our names in history books because it’s our very own and nobody can say it’s because of our grandfathers.’ Another boarder, Theo Dane, is a ballet teacher at The Children’s Academy of Dancing and Stage Training. After seeing Posy dance, she arranges for the head of the school, Madame Fidolia, to train them free of charge. This means that as each child reaches the age of twelve, she will be able to work professionally on the stage. Pauline soon shows talent as an actress, while Posy is clearly a gifted ballerina. Petrova, however, would rather spend time working with Mr. Simpson (another of the boarders) in his garage. As the story progresses, first Pauline and then Petrova reach the age of twelve and get parts in various plays, while Posy becomes more and more focused on her dancing."
How did it come about? Well we learn in Noel Streatfeild: A Biography (by Angela Bull), that Ballet Shoes was the result of a kind of fad in England. "The early 1930s were a crucial time for ballet. Diaghileff’s death in 1929, followed by Pavlova’s in January 1931, seemed to leave the world of dancing without leaders or direction; but a number of great Russian teachers, exiled by the Communist revolution, had settled in London, and through their instruction kept the ballet alive in England." This, in turn, made ballet the hot dance of the moment. Ballet schools for girls sprang up left and right. Then, "In 1933 another ballet company, the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo, took London by storm. Founded by Colonel de Basil in an attempt to revive the Diaghileff ballet, it included among its stars Irina Baronova, Tamara Toumanova and Tatiana Riabouchinska, a trio of enchanting dancers, still in their early teens, and known as ‘de Basil’s Babes’." Their biggest fan? You got it. Noel Streatfeild.
Apparently it was easy to write. In the article "My Moment of Success", from the December 1958 Books and Bookmen, Streatfeild says, "The story poured off my pen, more or less telling itself . . . I distrusted what came easily, and so despised the book." You don’t often run across similar quotes from children’s authors these days. Noel’s sister Ruth Gervis (a name I consistently misread as "Ricky Gervais") did the illustrations and when the book came out folks went crazy. "In another London bookshop, Hatchard’s, the children’s department could not cope with the demand, and a special downstairs counter was allocated to Ballet Shoes. Copies were rationed, and even Noel was only allowed to buy two. The first edition sold out; new editions followed as fast as Dents could manage." Even the author was limited to buying only two for her friends. The book would go on to become the runner up for the inaugural Carnegie Medal (won by Arthur Ransome for Pigeon Post.)
Now I had no idea about the budding mechanic and aviatrix aspect of this book until Brooke informed me of the fact. Indeed, Susan Dickinson praises Streatfeild for this decision in the November 1986 edition of Books for Keeps. "Ballet Shoes is based largely on Noel’s own experiences in the theatre, and she was to draw on those experiences again and again. But one of the most interesting characters in the book is Petrova. Petrova can neither dance nor act. In that household her lack of performing ability presented something of a problem–for how else could the girls earn money? But by the end of the book Petrova has her career planned: she will be an aviation expert. Who but Noel would have thought of setting a girl along that road in 1936?"
Written in 1936 it has aged uncommonly well, though Benny Green in the December 1977 issue of Spectator did have some issues on that front. "Naturally its age shows; there is talk of the London County Council, and at one point the death of George V impinges on the action. But Ballet Shoes proclaims its period in a subtler way; it assumes that everyone speaks or wants to speak standard English."
Folks who wish to know more about the characters can read about them in other Streatfeild tales. According to the Noel Streatfeild website one amongst many, " ‘What Happened to Pauline, Petrova and Posy’ is a short story in which we are told ‘a little about the way things turned out for the three girls’."
In America, Ms. Streatfeild is also known as the author of the "shoe" books. Ballet Shoes. Tennis Shoes. Theater Shoes. Party Shoes. Skating Shoes. Dancing Shoes. Family Shoes. Traveling Shoes. They’re not the original British titles but that’s how we think of them here. Heck, there’s even a moment in the movie You’ve Got Mail where Meg Ryan weepily recites the names of these books in the gigantic box superstore that has replaced her little independent one.
Fun Fact: When it first came out the book sported the subtitle A Children’s Novel of the Theatre. This was eventually changed to the subtitle A Story of Three Children on the Stage. These days, most folks forget it ever had a subtitle at all.
- Any and all additional information should be consulted at the Noel Streatfeild website. There are more facts about the book there than I could ever fit into a mere post.
- You can read some of the book here.
- A September 2008 New York Times article about the book and new movie said, "In Britain it has remained a standard of children’s literature in the same way that ‘Charlotte’s Web’ is in the United States."
The Nottingham Guardian said it was, "a sparkling story."
The Guider called it, "fascinating and accurate."
Said the Manchester Guardian, it was "delightful and very original."
Theatre Arts Monthly gave the book a relatively snide, "Let us hope that she turn her talents to a serious study of the adult life on the stage, for, unless Ballet Shoes is just a happy accident, such a book would be certain of an enthusiastic welcome."
And Horn Book Magazine said of it, "As you read this book you may quite likely think of half a dozen little girls (at least, I did!) to whom you would like to give it."
There was a filmed version of this movie in the mid-70s, but finding any scenes from it online proves difficult. Far easier is the recent version starring Emma Watson (who plays Hermione Granger, under normal circumstances).
#64 A Long Way from Chicago by Richard Peck (1998)
(#1)(#1)(#4)(#4)(#5)(#5)(#7)(#7)(#8)(#10) – 58 points
This reminded me to the episodic novels I read as a child. The voice was perfect; I could hear my own grandmother from Southern Illinois in the characters. – Mary Ann Rodman
I just love love love this book. Grandma Dowdel is one of the only characters in fiction that I truly wish were real (the other is Stargirl). The book is funny, the characters are people you want to know, and the setting is perfect. – Nicole Roohi, Goldenview Middle School Librarian, Anchorage, AK
Where there is Grandma Dowdel, there is a hoot. Take this quote, from barely 5 pages in: "Never trust an ugly woman. She’s got a grudge against the world," said Grandma, who was no oil painting herself. Although Peck only allows us to peek into Grandma’s home for one week per year, by the time we’re halfway through the book we feel like we’ve known her for as long as Effie Wilcox has (who was the object of that first comment, by the way, and who is either Grandma’s worst enemy or her best friend, depending on what day it is). But in each chapter Peck opens another door to Grandma Dowdel, and darned if he doesn’t surprise us every time. We have the privilege of watching Grandma cut the Cowgill boys down to size (which may not really be that tough, since they "aren’t broke out with brains"), get a whiff of her homemade cheese, which smelled "bad enough to gas a cat", and listen to her slice through the banker’s wife’s formalities with one sentence: My stars. The bank forecloses on people’s farms and throws them off their land, and they don’t even appreciate it. Grandma doesn’t give one whit what anybody in town thinks of her. She is ornery, wicked clever, and afeared o’ nothin’. She is fearsome to behold, but she has a compassionate side tucked away somewhere under her white bun of hair. Mostly, she is entirely marvelous to get to know. Hurray for Grandma Dowdel, and hurray for Richard Peck’s brilliant imagination. – Kristi Hazelrigg, Media Specialist, Parkview Elementary
Sure, I could have cut that down somewhat, but where Grandma Dowdel is concerned it is best to be loquacious. And Kristi has pretty much perfectly put her finger right dab down on what it is about this character that makes people love her so very very much.
The plot synopsis according to Publishers Weekly read, "Although the narrator, Joey, and his younger sister, Mary Alice, live in the Windy city during the reign of Al Capone and Bugs Moran, most of their adventures occur ‘a long way from Chicago,’ during their annual down-state visits with Grandma Dowdel. A woman as ‘old as the hills,’ ‘tough as an old boot,’ and larger than life (‘We could hardly see her town because of Grandma. She was so big, and the town was so small’), Grandma continually astounds her citified grandchildren by stretching the boundaries of truth. In eight hilarious episodes spanning the years 1929-1942, she plots outlandish schemes to even the score with various colorful members of her community, including a teenaged vandal, a drunken sheriff and a well-to-do banker. Readers will be eager to join the trio of Grandma, Joey and Mary Alice on such escapades as preparing an impressive funeral for Shotgun Cheatham, catching fish from a stolen boat and arranging the elopement of Vandalia Eubanks and Junior Stubbs."
In the December 2001 edition of Reading Teacher, the article "2001 Newbery Medal Winner: A Conversation" quotes Mr. Peck as he recalls the inspiration for his most famous creation. "I gather from everything. Grandma [Dowdel] is the great American tradition I came from. She is all of my great aunts, and while she is not much like my grandmother–except physically–all were imposing women. They didn’t wear tracksuits. They wore big Lane Bryant dresses. And they wore shoes. Those were shoes. It was a matriarchy, and Grandma Dowdel represents that. Notice she is often cooking? To her, that is not a subservient role; that is feeding the world. My relatives did that; they were so food oriented back then. Their kitchens were their temples. That is the tradition that I came from. Small town and rural midwest. And I don’t want it to die. I am writing for kids in suburbs who don’t know that time or that place."
Actually, it is very difficult to keep from wanting to quote the man over and over. In the same interview he mentions the importance of titles and says, "There is no perfect title except Gone with the Wind, and it has been used." I will abstain from doing more.
It won a Newbery Honor in 1999 and was, in fact, the only Honor book of its year. The winner? Holes by Louis Sachar. Two years later the sequel to this book, A Year Down Yonder, would win the Newbery proper. This book was also honored as a National Book Award Finalist for Young People’s Literature back in 1998. Finally, the third Grandma Dowdel book A Season of Gifts, came out in 2009.
- Here are some classroom connections for teachers.
- And a reading guide provided by the publisher.
Five Owls said of it, "Entertaining from start to finish, this would be an ideal book for a grandparent to share with a grandchild, or for a family to share and laugh through together. But behind the fun, there is a story that will make you consider whether Grandma is a saint or a sinner. Is she a crotchety old lady who uses lies for her gain–or an aging female Robin Hood with a heart of gold? A Long Way from Chicago could serve as a springboard for a family discussion about the inconsistencies in people, and whether the end ever justifies the means. A Long Way from Chicago is one of the best books of the year. Young readers will almost certainly want to learn more about the Great Depression after reading or listening to this book. And everybody will want more summer adventures to rattle their sensibilities and think about the benefits of an extended family."
School Library Journal thought that, "Peck’s conversational style has a true storyteller’s wit, humor, and rhythm."
Publishers Weekly put in a concise, "Like Grandma Dowdel’s prize-winning gooseberry pie, this satire on small-town etiquette is fresh, warm and anything but ordinary."
Said Horn Book, "Peck’s skill as a stylist, his ear for dialogue, and his sense of drama are all in evidence here. Told with verve, economy, and assurance, each tale is a small masterpiece of storytelling, subtly building on the ones that precede it. Taken as a whole, the novel reveals a strong sense of place, a depth of characterization, and a rich sense of humor. "
I think it very likely that some of you have not seen Mr. Peck speak before. This is a true shame because watching him talk is remarkable. He will speak, then read a passage from one of his books, and when he does this you discover that his voice does not change in modulation much from one activity to another. A hint of what I am talking about, then. This contains a series of selections from the SCBWI Master Class DVD with Richard Peck (a very useful item for any library to own, I would note). It even includes a section from the last Grandma Dowdel book A Season of Gifts.
"Fiction is the only eternal life."
#63 Gone-Away Lake by Elizabeth Enright (1957)
(#1)(#1)(#1)(#4)(#5)(#5)(#6)(#8)(#9) – 59 points
What child has not wanted to discover a lost place and create a special hidden retreat known only to herself and maybe a few friends? That’s what we read about here: cousins finding an abandoned summer colony of houses, currently peopled with two older characters that have retreated from the world. Summertime is practically a character here- the feel of hot sun, the sights and smells of the natural world, all lyrically described and overall giving an idyllic feel of what childhood summer used to be, or perhaps never was but what we hoped it could have been. Great book! – Christine Sealock Kelly
Makes readers wish for a summer adventure like this! – Stacy Dillon, Lower School Librarian, LREI – Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School
American Writers for Children, 1900-1960 describes the plot in this way: "In Gone–Away Lake, ten-and-a-half-year-old Portia Blake and her younger brother Foster, who tends to be absorbed in adventure fantasies, spend summer vacation in the country with their Aunt and Uncle Jarman and their cousin Julian, an amateur naturalist. While exploring a swamp which was once a lake resort, Portia and Julian discover a cluster of decayed Victorian summer cottages, where Minnehaha Cheever and Pindar Payton, elderly recluses, maintain their turn-of-the-century way of life in both costume and manner. The children and the old people become fast friends, the former fixing up one of the old cottages for a clubhouse."
According to "A Secure World of Childhood: The Artistry of Elizabeth Enright" (found in Hollins Critic from April 1998), Ms. Enright was a woman of multiple talents. "Trained as an artist, Enright discovered her vocation as a writer through the impulse to create her own illustrated book. In the process, she found that the writing satisfied her even more than the illustrating, though she continued to illustrate her children’s books with graceful, evocative drawings. She also attained considerable success as a writer of short stories during the heyday of American short story writing around the middle of the twentieth century, publishing her stories both in prestigious and in popular magazines and winning frequent inclusion in the O. Henry Award Prize Stories anthologies and in Best American Short Stories."
She began her career as a children’s author, a bit unfortunately, with her first book, Kintu: A Congo Adventure. Needless to say, there are reasons why it is not in print today. Kind of crazy to think that this was immediately followed up with the Newbery Award winner Thimble Summer. Other books would follow, including this one. And as American Writers for Children, 1900-1960 put it so well, "As in the Melendy stories, part of the substance of the Gone–Away books lies in the affectionate but lackadaisical friendships among the children and in their appreciation of special adults. Indeed, part of Enright’s humor in the stories about Gone–Away Lake lies in her portrayal of children’s protective instincts towards these interesting creatures, the grown-ups."
It earned itself a Newbery Honor in 1958, losing out to Rifles for Watie. That’s one of those choices you can feel free to argue vehemently against. The book would also go on to have a sequel called Return to Gone-Away reviewed beautifully here.
- Read some of the book here.
Said critic Eleanor Cameron in The Green and Burning Tree: "If this dream world has been created out of the memory of actuality, in which the intensity of the author’s love for it compelled eyes and ears to absorb every cherished sight and sound, you have such a book as Elizabeth Enright‘s Gone-Away Lake, in which she has called up a shimmer of summer days, rich with humor and beauty, in a place that surely any child who dreams of wandering free through woods and country and swamp would deem as near perfection as is attainable on earth."
The New York Times said that the book had a, "… brilliance and … humor that make it seem as if it were happening right this minute."
And a recent Publishers Weekly review of the audiobook said, "Though some of the language is dated and today’s children rarely have the same freedom to wander alone, this tale of friendship and the joys of a life lived well never sounds stale."
#62 The Secret of the Old Clock (The Nancy Drew mysteries) by Caroline Keene (1959)
(#1)(#2)(#2)(#2)(#3)(#5)(#7)(#8)(#9) – 60 points
The girl detective-Old school none of the 80’s revision- Nancy should have -titian hair who knew what that meant, drove a roadster and wear pumps how exotic! – Amy Sears, Supervising Librarian, Head of Youth Services, Teaneck Public Library, Teaneck, NJ
I’m not sure this was actually my favorite Nancy, but it was the start of the Nancy Drew reading career. I believe I’ve read all of the originals, around 100 of the casefiles, and several dozen of the newer series. She completely opened my eyes to reading and even as an adult that can recognize her flaws, I find myself drawn to her. – Katy Ross
OK, I know you said no blanket series titles – and I was going to be completely literary and not admit to being a Nancy addict as a child – but the fact is, I was. And I believe that the Nancy Drew books made me a reader in many ways. The ones I remember best are the early ones – The Hidden Staircase, The Clue in the Diary – probably because I read them over and over while waiting for a new one to come out, or for my grandmother to come up with another 50 cents for a new volume (since our local library did not deign to carry Nancy in their collection – Oh, those 1950s librarians!) I loved finding out a few years back that the early Nancy Drews (the ones I remember so fondly) were written by a real person – Mildred Wirt Benson – a feminist of the 1920s and 30s – a newspaper journalist at a time when few women did that – and that all of Nancy’s independent spirit came from someone who was living it. Thank you, Melanie Rehak, for writing Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her.) – Connie Rockman, Children’s Literature Consultant, Program Coordinator, Rabbit Hill Festival of Literature, Stratford, CT
A kid asks for Nancy Drew (boys and girls do, interestingly enough). I lead them over to the series portion of the children’s room and show them where they are. First we have the old classic Nancy Drews with their hardcover yellow spines and thick covers. Next to them are the paperback updated adventures of Nancy and her crew. And nine times out of ten the child will thank me and reach for the old hardcovers.
By the way, in the event that somebody voted on this poll but couldn’t select a single edition in a series they loved, I gave their votes to the first book in that series.
This raises an interesting issue. Who is the actual author of Nancy Drew? In 2001 Ilana Nash wrote of "New Evidence in the Authorship of Nancy Drew" (Dime Novel Round-Up, Apr. 2001) that "In its plot, its structure, its cast of characters, its sequence of events, and even large portions of its language, The Secret of the Old Clock is very clearly Edward Stratemeyer’s book." She argues that author Mildred A. Wirt was hired to write it as a ghostwriter, but the creation is very much his. By contrast Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her by Melanie Rehak argues that "Nancy Drew was brought to life by two remarkable women: original author Mildred Wirt Benson, a convention-flouting Midwestern journalist, and Harriet Stratemeyer Adams, a wife and mother who ran her father’s company after he died. Together, Benson and Adams created a character that has inspired generations of girls to be as strong-willed and as bold as they were."
This becomes all the more awkward when you discover how racist the early Nancy Drews were. For example, in this particular book there’s a moment when Nancy is freed from a closet by a drunken black caretaker, Jeff Tucker. Who was responsible for writing his supposedly "humorous" speech? As Nash says, "At one informal gathering in 1992, Wirt even used the word ‘uncomfortable’ to describe her feelings about writing racist text. This new evidence suggests, however, that Wirt’s discomfort did not stop her from doing a thorough job. As an employee experienced with her boss’s preferences, she may have taken his very sketchy references to Jeff Tucker as an opportunity to write a comic passage that she knew would earn Stratemeyer’s approval." One has to assume that such sections were removed rather quickly from subsequent editions.
She is a bit of a feminist icon, though. In the book Rediscovering Nancy Drew, Carolyn G. Heilbrun points out that, "The roadster, the lack of a female trainer in patriarchy, and the sheer gutsiness are what make the original Nancy Drew a moment in feminist history." Such discussions came up regularly when Sonia Sotomayor said publicly that she read Nancy Drew as a kid. Then it was all over the news. Jezebel spoke to Chelsea Cain, author of the Nancy Drew parody Confessions of a Teen Sleuth to get her response. The Seattle Times weighed in. Even Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg confessed to being fans.
I liked Nancy as a kid, but I admit that I threw her over entirely when I discovered Trixie Belden. Yet in Carol Billman’s remarkable The Secret of the Stratemeyer Syndicate: Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, and the Million Dollar Factory, Trixie is put squarely in her place. "Nancy may be the teen detective queen, but there are many attendants in her court. Among Stratemeyer offerings in the 1920s, at least four heroines spent a good amount of their energy solving mysteries: Ruth Fielding, Billie Bradley, Betty Gordon, and Nan Sherwood. Another series–the Blythe Girls begun in 1925–though more a member of the sentimental romance genre frequently contained mystery subplots and introduced a figure named Chester Drew, who in name anyhow may have inspired Keene’s Carson Drew. And after Nancy Drew a long line of girl gumshoes followed, both in and outside the Syndicate: the Dana Girls, Judy Bolton, Trixie Belden, Cherry Ames, and Kay Tracey, to name only some of the most prominent." Put another way, it’s like when Hannah Barbara produced a long line of mystery solving teen television shows (The Clue Club was my own personal favorite) out of which only Scooby Doo proved to have legs. Scooby Doo was therefore the Nancy Drew of television. Just exchange that roadster for a van.
The secret to her success lies partly in her Gothic surroundings (and probably accounts for why the early books are continually read while the later contemporary ones sit, for the most part, abandoned on library shelves). Billman says, "Her preferred place of confinement, where she spends a substantial period of time in most of her mysteries, is the cobwebbed attic, the dank cellar, the castle tower, the secret chamber, the hidden staircase, the locked closet–in sum, the stock haunts of the Gothic novel. And like the motherless heroines of the Gothics, Nancy normally enters old houses alone in search of clues to the activities or motives of (usually male) figures."
I wasn’t able to find any scholarly article to support my own theory, but in many ways I feel that Nancy is closest in personality and popularity to Sherlock Holmes. She doesn’t have his freedom in a lot of ways, nor the distinguishing complicated personal characteristics, but her knack for solving mysteries is very much along his lines. She has a boyfriend, but come on. It’s Ned. He’s essentially to Nancy was cocaine is to Sherlock. And instead of one sidekick, a mere Watson, Nancy has two. Hm. One significant difference, though, is that while I can name you any number of Sherlock plots, Heilbrun points out (correctly) that should you ask Nancy fans to recall her stories, "nobody can remember a thing about the plots of the books." So rather than write one out here I direct you instead to a recap of this book found over at bookshelves of doom. Love Nancy or hate her, the post is a hoot. Leila Roy systematically picks apart every aspect of the book before your very eyes. One of my favorite examples:
"Speaking of plot devices: Nancy’s "dark blue convertible" (she got it for her birthday) should win an award. Not only did a perfectly timed malfunction in the motorized convertible top (during an extremely heavy downpour) allow her to coincidentally meet two of the key players in the mystery, but a flat tire later in the story allows us readers to experience the joys of changing a tire — which, of course, Nancy knows how to do. (Okay, the flat tire wasn’t a plot device at all. There was no reason for it — which is odd, as most events in the book were there for a specific reason — unless of course, the Stratemeyer Syndicate wanted girls to know that it was cool to change tires, so maybe that bit was about Nancy’s character development. Or something. Although, it is specifically mentioned that she doesn’t enjoy changing tires. That would probably be too butch.)"
- Read some of the book here.
- According to Wikipedia (so take this with more than just a grain of salt) "As of 2001, it ranked 53rd on a list of the all-time best-selling hardcover children’s books in English."
Covers covers covers abound! Many of the foreign ones I found for this book came from this fantastic site. Go there if you’d like to see additional copies in other languages.
First came the American:
In France her name is Alice and even Carolyn Keene got a moniker update too.
Spain (I adore her flowered jean jacket)
And most of the time the cover beneath the jacket is just as interesting as what was on the jacket.
And, of course, there is this fabulous purse.
Naturally, folks have a hard time not adapting her on a periodic basis. There was, for example, the 1977 show The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew Mysteries.
And how could we have all forgotten the 1995 television series with its much-lamer-than-Scooby-Doo (I’ve got Scooby on the brain today) opening?
Mathnet had a more exciting opening than that, guys. Ditto The Bloodhound Gang.
And most recently was the Emma Roberts movie where Nancy is perfect at everything and that’s her problem. No titian hair here.
#61 Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli (2000)
(#2)(#2)(#2)(#3)(#3)(#4)(#5)(#6) – 61 points
Some people aspire to be more like Mother Teresa, Oprah Winfrey, or Rosa Parks. I want to be more like Stargirl Caraway. – Beth Maddigan, Provincial Children’s Librarian, Newfoundland and Labrador Public Libraries, St. John’s, NL
This is the only book on the list that could possibly not be considered a children’s book. But I think it should be included because it is short and is found in many elementary school libraries. 5th and 6th graders read it and love it because it deals with the universal themes of fitting in and being true to yourself. – Nicole Roohi, Goldenview Middle School Librarian, Anchorage, AK
Agreed. I thought about denouncing Stargirl as too teen, but it really isn’t. For the 11 and 12-year-olds out there, it’s a perfectly jolly little book and I’m not going to crush its little spirit by labeling it too old. Just because a book is about a teen, that doesn’t mean it’s YA. Besides, we keep it in my kids’ section, and I think it belongs there. Tweens need stuff to read too, y’know.
The description from the publisher reads, "Stargirl. From the day she arrives at quiet Mica High in a burst of color and sound, the hallways hum with the murmur of ‘Stargirl, Stargirl.’ She captures Leo Borlock’s heart with just one smile. She sparks a school-spirit revolution with just one cheer. The students of Mica High are enchanted. At first. Then they turn on her. Stargirl is suddenly shunned for everything that makes her different, and Leo, panicked and desperate with love, urges her to become the very thing that can destroy her: normal. In this celebration of nonconformity, Newbery Medalist Jerry Spinelli weaves a tense, emotional tale about the perils of popularity and the thrill and inspiration of first love."
A Q&A from the end of the paperback edition of Stargirl sheds a little light on where the idea for the book came from. Says Spinelli, "I have notes going all the way back to 1966 for the book that ultimately became Stargirl. At first it was going to be about a boy. It went through many titles, including Moonshadow and Under the Bomb. Many things I read over the years influenced the story, notably the play Ondine by Giraudoux. In its final form the story finds its most specific inspiration in my wife Eileen, some of whose good deeds and such I happily confiscated." Awww.
The book got sort of trounced some of the professional reviews. Horn Book didn’t review it, just Horn Book Guide (and it wasn’t overly pleased either). The Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy said of it, "The students in the novel are portrayed as indistinguishable from one another. This could be Spinelli‘s attempt to make Stargirl as distinct and different as possible. However, he gives her characteristics that are not only unoriginal (Stargirl seems to be a throwback to the ‘flower power’ era in vogue 35 years ago) but also specific to white popular culture. Her flowing dresses and sunflower bag along with her ukulele playing, her love of meditation, and her barefoot dancing in the grass is reminiscent of ‘hippie-chicks’ in the 1960s and 1970s."
Still, Bookbird gave it a bit of lengthy consideration alongside another Spinelli title. In "Name and Identity in Spinelli’s Stargirl and Loser" author Emma Gormley writes, "The relationship between name and identity is explicitly articulated in Stargirl, where the essential human self is described in terms of the words ‘uncivilised’, ‘unnamed’ and ‘natural’. It is only through naming, Spinelli argues, that we become manufactured social selves, defined by what others call us. Despite the negative undertones of this thematic focus, Spinelli‘s novels are subtly imbued with a sense of hope."
The sequel to this book, Love, Stargirl, was published in 2007.
- Read some of it here.
- Discussion guide questions are here.
The Horn Book Guide (ooo, burn!) said, "Predictably, this doesn’t work for Stargirl; on the author’s part, it occasions much heavy-handed moralizing about conformity. But as a story of high school outsiders and light romance, [Stargirl] will find an audience."
Said Publishers Weekly, "As always respectful of his audience, Spinelli poses searching questions about loyalty to one’s friends and oneself and leaves readers to form their own answers."
The ALAN Review commented, "This is a delightful, sometimes painful, but always provocative story of first love and teenage popularity. Another well-written work by Spinelli that will particularly appeal to young people and their eagerness to discuss today’s high school culture."
The New York Times said, "Jerry Spinelli, an author already much acclaimed (his Maniac Magee won the Newbery Medal in 1991), has produced a poetic allegorical tale about the magnificence and rarity of true nonconformity, handsomely bound by his publisher into an unusually pretty little 186-page book."
And finally Kirkus said of it, "Once again Spinelli takes his readers on a journey where choices between the self and the group must be made, and he is wise enough to show how hard they are, even when sweet."
Generally it makes the most sense when you don’t put Stargirl’s face on the cover.
Not everyone agrees, however. Here are three covers that basically deny everything the book inside is trying to say about individuality. Particularly #1. I mean, what’s so original about her? That she’s wearing a black hat with a white sweater?
Filed under: Top 100 Children's Novels (2010)
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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