A Jerry Spinelli-inspired Close Reading #CloseReading Blog-a-thon

“We were awash in tiny attentions. Small gestures, words, empathies thought to be extinct came to life… We discovered the color of each other’s eyes.”
― Jerry SpinelliStargirl

Admittedly, I am a late-comer to the Stargirl fan club. (Note: There actually are several fan clubs for the book Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli; check out examples here and here.) Stargirl was published in 2000, and its sequel, Love, Stargirl, in 2007. Thousands have read and loved and cried and had their hearts broken alongside the titular character and her ambivalent love interest, Leo. The book has spawned “Stargirl Societies,” groups of young people determined to make the world a better place with simple gestures, such as dropping loose change for others to find, cheering for both teams, and dancing whenever the urge strikes. I read both books as part of my #summerreading 2013 campaign, as they had been on my list for a long, long time. Though I knew the plot lines of both books, and had heard many reviews,  while reading them for myself, I felt as if I was uncovering a secret. I became a transported reader, laughing out loud, shedding tears, and feeling a deep sense of loss upon reaching the final page.

As Chris Lehman and Kate Robert’s Close Reading Blog-a-thon nears its close, I thought I would commemorate all of the learning it sparked for me (and I’m certain many others) by simply trying out some close reading. One impetus for this exercise was certainly to study myself as a close reader and to possibly distill what I learned into a useful tip or two. I’m not implying that these tips are necessarily earth-shattering realizations about the teaching of close reading. Based on the sample released by Heinemann of  Falling in Love with Close Reading,  Chris and Kate’s new book, there one can find many beautiful lessons with more specific strategies than the ones I list here.  Admittedly, perhaps an even greater impetus for this exercise was to revisit the Stargirl books, to study them closely, to uncover something I may have missed the first time. Because, as Chris and Kate point out in their book, that is what we do when we fall in love. We revisit, look more closely, accumulate all of the tiny details we can. Ultimately, we just want to be around the object of our love. So that is what this post is really about — spending some more time with Stargirl.

When I originally read the Stargirl books, I did not classify what I was doing as close reading. I simply read the books, letting their beauty and language wash over me, and highlighting parts that stood out or seemed to matter. Because I was reading on an iPad, I used a color coding system to delineate the kinds of highlights I made – orange for parts that gave me clues about the characters, yellow for parts that were clues about the theme or message or the book, and pink for parts that I just loved, lines that were so beautiful I had to read them again.

Here are some of the parts of Stargirl that I highlighted in pink:

I liked the feeling the moonlight gave me, as if it wasn’t the opposite of day, but its underside, its private side, when the fabulous purred on my snow-white sheet like some dark cat come in from the desert. (pg. 12)

The pronoun “we” seemed to crack and drift apart in pieces. (pg. 41)

A baseball bat could not have hit me harder than that smile did. I was sixteen years old. In that time, how many thousands of smiles had been aimed at me? So why did this one feel like the first? (pg. 76)

The echo of her laughter is the second sunrise I awaken to each day, and at night I feel it is more than stars looking down on me. (pg. 186)

And here are some from Love, Stargirl:

We were once so fresh, a dazzling snowfield. Let’s promise to each other that if we ever meet again we will never plow and push our new-fallen snow. We will not become slush. We will stay like this field and melt away together only in the sun’s good time. (pg. 29)

I love living in a world without clocks. The shackles are gone. I’m a puppy unleashed in a meadow of time. (pg. 168)

I will sail into the future on mystery’s wings and I will not look back. (pg. 273)

I placed these quotes side by side, looking across them to see what stood out to me. I noticed right away Spinelli’s use of comparisons. Spinelli makes comparisons that evoke powerful images – that of cat slinking through the desert, a hard-hitting baseball bat, a puppy unleashed, a dazzling snowfield. These powerful images act as descriptors, describing people, feelings, objects, and events in a way that one or two adjectives would not.

Many of Spinelli’s comparisons come from the natural world: animals, sunrises, snow. Stargirl herself seems to live in a world that is somehow beyond that inhabited by humans, a world that humans can see and only try to appreciate, but that is beyond the comprehension of most.

Though many parts are describing characters’ feelings and reactions, which are not typically associated with action, I noticed that many contain a sense of movement, through the use of carefully placed verbs.

Interestingly, the very last section of Stargirl is the same as the first. In chapter one, “Porcupine Necktie”, Leo explains that a porcupine necktie mysteriously arrives at his house after a local newspaper article mentions his desire to start a collection. Spinelli places the entire chapter again at the end of the book, perhaps inviting the reader to reread it with new eyes, with all of the understanding and compassion that comes along with taking Stargirl and Leo’s journey. By repeating this chapter, Spinelli automatically encourages a kind of close reading.

Below are a few of the possible teaching points I listed based on my close reading:

  • Readers formulate their own coding systems, based on what they know about good reading.
  • Readers first mark up places in a book where they feel deeply moved. They compare several places they marked, looking for patterns.
  • Readers not only name specific techniques that the author has used, but they also name possible purposes of these techniques, or effects these techniques have on the reader.
  • Readers not only notice lines, phrases, and sections that are repeated in a text, they pause when they encounter repetition, using repeated parts as opportunities to see a section with new eyes.

Since all the close reading buzz began, I’ve discussed it with colleagues, tried to define it, read about it,  and attempted to teach it. But one thing I hadn’t done very well was try it. I often need to be reminded of the power of trying even just a taste of the work we are asking students to do.

I tried a final bit of application, from which I gleaned one more teaching point: Readers apply lessons learned from closely reading texts to their own writing and to their lives.

Stargirl stopped me in my tracks like a full moon on a crisp November night. Though I knew that many, many others were bathed in its light, I felt as if it had been put there just for me, as a message, a gift, a promise. I know that I will move on and it will be part of my conscious awareness less and less, but I also know that I will never again be the kind of person who hasn’t been affected by it.  It will always be mine.

Perhaps we can say something similar about close reading. Studying the details of a text in this way may not always be a part of our students’ every day consciousness. But they will never again be the kind of readers who don’t know how to pause, gather, re-read, reflect, analyze. Close reading will always be theirs.