Friday, April 11, 2008

Jerry Spinelli

by Jerry Spinelli
Recommended Age: 10+

I don't know if many child characters have touched me as much as "Zinkoff" in Jerry Spinelli's Loser.

The book follows the boy's progress from first through sixth grade - a clumsy, un-athletic child, always picked last for games, getting mediocre grades, sloppy in his penmanship and flute playing, and not particularly liked by anyone - yet a child with a heart of gold, who is ever so cheerful, brave, and good-hearted. Somehow he loves going to school and learning, though he isn't really good at anything except riding his bicycle and playing Monopoly. He's not even good at being bullied, because he is so dim about what is going on that he keeps trying to share obligingly in other people's happiness even when they WANT him to cry like a sissy.

A child who has trouble controlling his laughter (even just being happy makes him laugh), who yells "Yahoo!" a lot and who throws up a lot because of a backward valve in his stomach, his only fear is the darkness of the cellar, and the boredom of missing school. At one point, on a cold winter's night, he wanders around looking for a little lost girl (who, meanwhile, has been found, but he doesn't know it) for SEVEN HOURS and is finally found, himself, on the point of freezing to death.

The novel does not have a happy ending, but it isn't a bad ending either... it's not really an ending, but it carries the hint that things might turn out OK for this special, wonderful boy. Read it at your own risk. You might fall in love with little Donald Zinkoff.

Maniac Magee
by Jerry Spinelli
Recommended Age: 10+

The author of Loser triumphs in yet another heartwarming study of a lonely child who has “issues.” This book won the 1991 Newbery Medal award for American children’s literature.

“Maniac,” of course, isn’t his first name - it’s actually Jeffrey. Orphaned at age three, his dreams are haunted by images of his parents plunging to their deaths from a railroad bridge. Then he spent awhile with an aunt and uncle who were not speaking to each other - each pretending the other wasn’t there--until their silence drove young Jeffrey to run for it.

Round about age 12, Jeffrey comes in for a landing in the city of Two Mills, where Hector Street is the line of demarcation between the strictly white West End and the black East End. And being the fearless, colorblind, and completely footloose child he is, Jeffrey sets both sides of Hector topsy-turvy. His exploits become the stuff of legend - on the athletic field and off. But his greatest achievement--to find a home of his own - continues to elude him.

Maniac’s search for a place to belong is full of excitement, humor, and sadness. He sees people at their best on both sides of the racial divide. He also sees some people at their worst... and little by little, begins to bring out the best in them as well. Before anything changes for Maniac, he makes a difference for a lot of people. And as Spinelli points out, it’s not because he’s an especially good person himself. He’s simply blind to what certain things mean. And no matter who you are, you will find yourself praying that he wises the world up before the world wises him up.

This is a painful book to read at times; but it is also very satisfying, and at times breaks out into unexpected moments of poetry. I urge you to find it and read it. But brace yourself, you may get to the end of it a changed person.

by Jerry Spinelli
Recommended Age: 14+

The first day of eleventh grade, Leo looks up from his lunch tray and sees a girl who is completely different from everyone else. She dresses oddly, wears no makeup, does weird things like play “Happy Birthday” on the ukelele to complete strangers, and calls herself Stargirl. Some people almost think she might be from another planet, especially when she does things like cheering for both teams at a basketball game, and showing up at a funeral for someone she never met. Stargirl’s antics make some people uncomfortable, and others are downright hostile. But Leo can’t get her out of his mind.

At first Leo is shy and nervous, but soon he and Stargirl are experiencing the euphoria of first love. I just have to quote the book to give you an idea of how deliciously Leo expresses himself...
I was floating. I floated up the white light that washed my sheets and slept on the moon. In school I was a yellow balloon, smiling and lazy, floating above the classrooms. I felt a tug on my string. Far below, Kevin was calling, “You’re in love, dude!” I merely smiled and rolled over and drifted dreamily out a window.
...But, unfortunately, the floaty part does not last forever. In time, Leo realizes that the girl he loves is more than unpopular; she is actually shunned. And the shunning is starting to be aimed at Leo, because he is with her. Leo can’t handle the painful choice between being loved by Stargirl and being loved by everyone else. As you read his story, you feel the pain of his dilemma. You cringe as he persuades Stargirl to change for him, to conform to the way everyone else acts. You feel dread as you realize that nothing good will come of this. And you mourn with Leo as he loses something precious and irreplaceable.

Welcome to Stargirl – from the award-winning author of Maniac Magee. All the reviews and endorsements of this book seem to agree that it is some kind of “allegorical tale” about “noncomformity.” I disagree. It is a very moving, lyrical, personal story about first love, the nature of love in general, and the sacrifices and risks required by a special kind of love. In modest, simple words full of breathtaking imagery, Jerry Spinelli portrays this bittersweet tragedy against the backdrop of the Arizona desert – and take it from someone who has lived there, the background is gorgeously portrayed too!

It is like a candid confession from a boy who is not much wiser than any of us would be at that age. So I’m warning you. Do not go into this book thinking that you can guard yourself against the inevitable stab in the heart. As Leo opens his story to you, you will find yourself opening your heart to it in return. After that, you will be caught – loving, losing, hoping, and without a doubt, smiling through your tears.

UPDATE: In June 2009, a sequel to this book is set to be released, titled Love, Stargirl.

by Jerry Spinelli
Recommended Age: 10+

This is a Newbery Honor Book from the author of the Newbery-Medal-winning Maniac Magee. Like the other books by Spinelli that I have read, it focuses on a child whose troubles “outside” hurt him on the inside.

The child in this case is Palmer LaRue, known to some of his friends as Snots. One of Palmer’s wishes in life, as he comes to his ninth birthday, is to run with the gang led by mischief-making Beans, even though it means not being so close to his across-the-street friend, Dorothy. Beans, Mutto, Henry, and Snots become the terror of the neighborhood, pulling rambunctious pranks and (to Palmer’s private discomfort) being cruel to Dorothy.

However, Palmer has a secret wish that is more important to him than anything else. And it torments him day and night. He does not want to be a wringer. He does not to be one of the ten-year-old boys who wring the necks of the 5,000 pigeons who are shot down in a sharpshooting contest in the park every summer. His dread of wringing a pigeon’s neck is so strong that it turns into a dread of reaching his tenth birthday.

But time won’t be stopped. Palmer feels more and more hopelessly trapped as Beans, enthusiastic about becoming a wringer, penetrates Palmer’s secret; not only his secret desire not to be a wringer, but also the secret that Palmer has a pet pigeon named Nipper, whom he loves more than anything.

Seldom has one little boy’s suspense and anguish made such a simple, powerful story. Palmer is torn between conflicting loyalties, terrified of being ostracized, ashamed of the things he does to “belong,” yet proud to be part of Beans’ gang; he loves the guys and hates them, cares for Dorothy and hurts her, idolizes his father and resents him, wants to protect Nipper at all costs yet is almost paralyzed by his love for the bird. And in the unforgettable climax of the story, Palmer learns to be honest about everything... no matter what happens afterward.

EDIT: Other titles by Jerry Spinelli include Space Station Seventh Grade, The Bathwater Gang, Crash, Milkweed, and the soon-to-be-released Smiles to Go.

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