On Authenticity and Embracing Failure

Stargirl, a novel by Jerry Spinelli ’63, is a new Disney+ movie 20 years later

Jerry Spinelli speaking at a Gettysburg College commencement ceremony
Author Jerry Spinelli ’63 addresses the graduating class at the College’s 2019 Commencement Ceremony.

Be true to yourself. That’s the message that author Jerry Spinelli ’63 has for the world in his young adult novel Stargirl that was recently turned into a Disney+ movie. That commitment to self-authenticity is one Spinelli has shown throughout his life and career as an author of more than 30 published books.

Spinelli’s career as an author wasn’t always a sure thing. He spent many years stealing moments to write between the 9-5 of “normal” jobs, and wrote more than one adult novel that was rejected. Nevertheless, he stayed true to himself and continued writing. His first book, Space Station Seventh Grade, was published in 1982, more than 20 years after he graduated with an English degree from Gettysburg College. He’s since won countless book awards and accolades, including the Newbery medal, twice. Stargirl was published in 2000 and became a New York Times bestseller.

Stargirl centers on teenager Leo and the arrival of an unusual girl, Stargirl Caraway, to his school. Stargirl wears what she likes—kimonos, pioneer clothing, or 1920’s outfits—and always carries a ukulele and her pet rat. Leo and Stargirl connect over her uniqueness, compassion, and kindness. These qualities make Stargirl initially an outcast, then popular, then an outcast again on the rollercoaster that is high school. When Stargirl is shunned by her peers, Leo encourages her to conform by dressing “normally” and reverting to her real name of Susan. She does so temporarily, but ultimately realizes she must embrace who she is and stay true to herself. Stargirl moves away but her impact on Leo is lasting.

Stargirl book cover with graphic artwork
Stargirl book cover.

When Spinelli was asked what he’d want his fellow Gettysburgians to know—particularly those who may be struggling with questions of identity like Leo and Stargirl—he reiterates his message of non-conformity and adds, “Read the book. That's where I say what I have to say: in the stories. They are my love letters to the world.”

Originally more a lover of sports than writing, Spinelli first saw his words in print as a teenager when he wrote a poem about a neighborhood football victory in Norristown, Pennsylvania, a couple hours from the Gettysburg campus. Unbeknownst to Spinelli, his dad had it published in the local newspaper. The rest is history, as they say. As an undergraduate at Gettysburg College, he kept writing, focusing mostly on short stories, editing both the college literary magazine, The Mercury, and the sports section of The Gettysburgian. When reflecting on the value of his liberal arts education, he says, “A writer needs to know something about everything.”

Success takes time and often requires making mistakes, a message that Spinelli amplified when he gave the Commencement Address to the Gettysburg Class of 2019. To the graduates, he said, “I wish for you the other less celebrated sides of success—the often unacclaimed, priceless rewards of being number two. I wish for you the things that success cannot give you … that put grit in your gizzard and spit in your spine. Success cannot be counted on to do that.”

In writing and in film, Spinelli has embraced his stumbles and failures along the way. It took him three years to write his first book. Another three years to send it out to publishers. They all rejected him. It took almost 20 years before Stargirl was made into a film. He says, “We went through a parade of actors, directors, studios, and scripts until Disney finally pulled the trigger.” Yet, Spinelli never gave up. As he said to the Class of 2019, “Done right, losing is an achievement.”

Stargirl movie poster with a photograph of a female actress
Stargirl movie poster.

Dead Wednesday, Spinelli’s next book, will be released this spring. The plot focuses on 8th grader Worm who enjoys feeling invisible and letting his best friend take the lead until he meets the ghost of a teenage girl killed in a car crash. The story centers on themes dear to Spinelli’s heart like living boldly and being your authentic self.

Spinelli continues to live in Pennsylvania, in Media, with his author-wife. He is the proud parent of six children (with 21 grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren). He’s still voraciously writing and is well on his way to completing a new story to share with the world.

By Katelyn Silva
Photos by Jason Minick and courtesy of Jerry Spinelli
Posted: 12/01/20