by Judy Newman with Alexie Basil
On the eve of Women’s History Month in March, I started thinking about the role of women in my reading life and realized that when I was a kid, most of the books I read and loved were by—and about—women and girls.
I grew up in an era of disruptive feminism. As an adult, I read and appreciate the work of the now-called “second wave” feminists that began in the 1960s: Gloria, Betty, Erica, Angela, and bell. But as a kid, set against the frightening backdrop of Kent State, the Vietnam War on the TV in the kitchen each night, and the threat of one or another world leader pushing the dreaded “red button” and sending us all into oblivion—I was pretty terrified.
Before I understood the role of activism in society, I was scared by these loud feminist voices. My mother worked as a teacher, then as a social worker. My grandmother worked as a piano teacher. My own teachers were women. Miss Bartel was the principal of the John Ward School I attended, and even though “Miss Bartel went to hell” in an underground school anthem, she had real power and was revered and respected. I didn’t see any limits to what I could accomplish. Obviously, I didn’t get it.
But now, decades later, I realize something. While I was too young to be out protesting (I felt so self-conscious even trying on a bra in Filene’s dressing room, let alone burning one in public!) and while at the time I didn’t see what “women’s lib” had to do with me, I must have internalized these feminist messages and expressed my interest and concern in my own way.
Looking back, I recognize virtually all of the books I read and loved as a kid featured two types of feminist heroes: real-life women who were the subjects of the Childhood of Famous Americans biographies; and a group of outspoken, self-determined characters who were usually around my age, and fictional.
I went through a period in third grade when I would read and reread the biographies of women who had made their mark in American history in the Childhood of Famous Americans series. I was inspired by the paths of Amelia, Betsy, Florence, Clara, Harriet, and Sacagawea. I really wanted to fly around the world, make flags, volunteer for the Red Cross, abolish slavery, be a naturalist and a translator, and help others.
Beginning in fourth grade, other than the gorgeous National Geographic magazine that came to our house every month, I read mostly fiction. And the authors of those books—Beverly, Louisa, Astrid, Elaine, Louise, and Virginia—were women I adored.
And their outspoken, fierce female characters—Beezus; Jo, Mary, Amy, and Beth; Pippi; Claudia; Harriet; and Zeely—were my role models for girls who could do anything. They inspired me. I consider them my friends for life.
In the world we live in, many heroes—real and fictional—don’t live up to their hype. They disappoint in some big or small way or fall out of style and become irrelevant. But not my girls: they are forever indomitable, fearless, above reproach. They are equal-opportunity entertainers. They are generous and enthusiastic about each new generation of readers who comes their way. They often lived in a man’s world, but they push through and around it.
They take on boys and men and injustice in the neighborhood and in the world. They own their own stories. They don’t pass the buck or place blame. For them, every month is Women’s History Month.
They set the bar high for me.
Now that I am (mostly) a grown-up, I still believe in the unparalleled power of female characters in books to show how strong and self-determined and world-changing women can be. My bookshelves always make room for new role models and friends whose stories were published after my childhood: Lanesha, Hà, Esperanza, Hermione, Katniss, and…Stargirl.
I have known and loved working with Stargirl’s creator, Jerry Spinelli, for 25 years. His books are honored and beloved by teachers, librarians, parents, and readers everywhere. Jerry’s books include: the Newbery Medal winner Maniac Magee; Newbery Honor book Wringer; his autobiography, Knots in My Yo-Yo String; and many more. I love them all but, just like my friend and colleague David Vozar, Stargirl is a personal favorite.
We wanted to make Stargirl available to as many teachers and students as possible. The page-turning story of Stargirl and Leo and their lives at Mica High School in Arizona will thoroughly entertain, engross, and make readers think about individuality, bullying, creativity, honesty, being kind to others, standing up for what you believe in, and being your best, true self.
“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.” —Kirkus Reviews
Jerry wrote to me a few months ago to tell me that (at last!) Stargirl will be a movie. We are so excited to see Stargirl come to the screen and bring the attention of a whole new generation of readers to her beautiful story. It’s set to premier on Disney+ later this year!
To enhance this week’s Dollar Deal, The Book Boys discuss Stargirl, exploring themes of the book; a teacher and student discuss how Stargirl is a useful text to combat bullying and peer pressure in school in Book Talks; Jerry Spinelli reveals his inspiration for Stargirl in Behind the Scenes; and, inspired by Leo’s (and Kevin’s) school TV show, we present our own “Hot Seat” classroom activity for you to try in Cooked Up from a Book to help each of your students find their own unique star qualities!
I hope you and your students enjoy reading and embracing Stargirl—and all that she embodies. As always, I would love to hear from you and your class during Women’s History Month, or anytime. Please email me at: JNBlog@scholastic.com
This Book Is Available from Scholastic Book Clubs