In Conversation with Jerry Spinelli about the Journey of “Stargirl”

Every time I think I’m going to do more interviews in this corner of the Internet, it doesn’t pan out into fruition. I’ve come to accept that that’s okay, for this is really a space for me to speak. However, that doesn’t mean I’m going to forfeit interviews completely, and I definitely have quite a conversation to share today. In the midst of COVID-19 altering life as we know it and finding ways to pass the time until these shelter-in-place orders are lifted, I figured that now is the best time to reach out and speak with an author whose books I grew up reading: Jerry Spinelli.

Spinelli is the author of over 30 books for children and young adult readers. Notable titles include Maniac Magee (1990 Newbery Award Winner), Wringer, Milkweed, and more. But it’s his 2000 novel, Stargirl, that’s currently having a hot moment. It’s been 20 years since the timeless tale about being true to yourself was released, and just two weeks ago, its movie adaptation starring Grace VanderWaal was made available on Disney+.

In an e-mail exchange with Spinelli, he shares his thoughts about the 20th anniversary of Stargirl, the process it took to write it, and the journey of getting the book adapted for film.

STARGIRL – GRAHAM VERCHERE, GRACE VANDERWAAL (Disney+/Dale Ronbinette)

LL: First of all, congratulations are in order. This year marks 20 years since Stargirl was published. What are your general thoughts about the fact that this book of yours has been around for this long?

JS: Thirty-five languages. Every continent. What book wouldn’t be happy with that?

LL: Stargirl is definitely one of those books that have been in the works for a while before seeing the light of day. I remember you mentioning in a past interview that you have notes for it dating back to 1966. However, do you remember exactly when and how you came up with the idea for the story?

JS: Wow–you remember that! Yes, I made the first notes of the story that would become Stargirl in 1966, at my desk at work as I recall. It was going to be about a boy who lived underground, maybe in a sewer or subway. It must say something about creative flexibility that when the book came out 32 years later, it was about a girl and her first year in public school. I don’t recall exactly when I landed on the idea (the name came later) of Stargirl. Among influences: Ondine by Jean Giraudoux; Nightwood by Djuna Barnes; moments from my own past; and most of all the original Stargirl, my wife Eileen.

LL: How does the writing process for Stargirl compare to the books you’ve written both before and after it came out?

JS: None of the others took 32 years to write. Average write time is about a year.

LL: While I can only speak from only my own experiences with the novel, why do you think Stargirl has had such an appeal to readers over the past two decades?

JS: I would like to think it’s because I succeeded at what I try every time out: a good story and a compelling character. I know the message is there and I’m glad it’s being picked up. But the message should be an organic byproduct of the story.

“It’s a story, not a sermon. Story is paramount.”

LL: Can you talk a little bit about the journey for the book to be adapted for film? I’m aware that it has been in the works for quite some time.

JS: There was studio interest even before official publication. There have been a parade of directors, scripts, actors, studios. I spoke with Dakota Fanning. Taylor Swift wanted the role. At one point a director and screenwriter were scouting sites and it seemed we were days away from shooting. Things for one reason or another just never came together until Disney called. By premiere time: twenty years.

LL: What has it been like for you to see your characters come to life like this?

JS: I’ve seen it before, on stage and film. It’s a jolt to varying degrees, depending on how closely a given character resembles the one in my head. And of course there are always changes to the story. One just hopes they’re minor and that the basic story itself and its spirit remain intact, as appears to be the case with Stargirl.

LL: How was it for you serving as an executive producer for the film?

JS: I guess you could say that being in the loop and making suggestions and scriptural contributions for two decades qualifies me as “executive director.” There were no specific duties as such.

LL: Although Stargirl is very much a timeless story, there are details in the film adaptation that allows for it to take place in the year 2020. Smart phones and social media are actively used by everyone but Stargirl. Apart from the two leads, the cast is quite racially diverse. One of Leo’s friends is LGBTQ+. Director Julia Hart recently explained how the story was slightly tweaked for Stargirl to learn a lesson in intentions over impact. What did you make of these additions and enhancements to the story?

JS: I was fine with all that. The time period, at least specifically, was not all that important. Cell phones replacing bulletin boards? Cool.

LL: What do you hope for the future of both the novel and film adaptation of Stargirl?

“That the story–the story–continues to spread to new readers in both new and old places.”

LL: If Leo and Stargirl were real, what do you think they would be up to nowadays? Also, do you think they would have ever gotten back together?

JS: In my mind there’s no doubt they get together. The very end of Stargirl takes place well after the events of Love, Stargirl, which happens the year after most of Stargirl. He finds a tie on his doorstep. I like to think we can infer she knows where he is. Which suggests she’s keeping track of him and still cares. Which in turn suggests they’re likely to meet up soon.

Many thanks again to Jerry Spinelli for the interview! It was a dream come true!

Stargirl is available wherever books are sold and check out the film adaptation, now streaming on Disney+.

For all the latest on Spinelli and his work, be sure to check out his website.

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