Our Mock Newbery 2016 Goodreads book club chose “Stella by Starlight” as its March read. This book has been in my TBR pile for quite a while. (Or at least since January 6th when it came out. But, hey, in the reading world that seems like a while!) So I was glad that it got picked for this month’s book.
“Stella by Starlight” received starred reviews from Kirkus, School Library Journal, and Publishers Weekly. Now that says something! It currently has a 4 1/2 star rating on Amazon and a 4.06 rating on Goodreads. Not too shabby! Let me give you a brief summary before I divulge my personal opinion on the book.
In 1932, eleven year old Stella Mills is all too aware of the dangers of the Ku Klux Klan. Ever since she saw them burning a cross in the middle of the night, she can’t shake the image, or the unsettling chill it gave her. As if that wasn’t enough to worry about, Stella is struggling in school. She has difficulty reading and writing, often coming up blank when it’s time to put her thoughts onto paper. At home, her daddy barely makes enough money for her family to scrape by. Even buying necessities like medicine is a tough decision.
As the presidential election nears, Stella’s daddy and two other men from town work up the courage to register to vote. Stella goes along with the men, as her father says he wants her to see what bravery looks like in action. Once they arrive at the registration office, they’re poorly treated by the official. He taunts them and shares his surprise at the fact that the men can even read. Before they can register, the men have to fill out a test on the Constitution. As they’re working, two white men come in to register to vote. Unlike the black men, these men aren’t interrogated, nor do they have to take a test or pay the steep two dollar fee. Begrudgingly, the official tells the men they’ve passed the test, but that they should be on the lookout for trouble.
It doesn’t take long for trouble to make its way to the town. Mr. Spencer, one of the men who registered to vote, and his family are burned out of their home, undoubtedly by the KKK. Though they thought everyone was out and to safety, Mrs. Spencer discovers that her youngest daughter isn’t with the family. Stella proves the hero when she finds little Hazel hiding in her safe spot in the roots of a tree. The town comes together to provide for the Spencer family, including a place for them to live.
Stella and her neighbors are confronted by hatred from white people at every turn. When her mom is bitten by a snake, Stella has to beg the white doctor from town to come and treat her mom with antivenin. Though he has the supplies, he flat out refuses to help. Stella begs, imploring him to think about what he would do if it was his wife or daughter. But as he slams the door in her face, Stella notices the sign on the door: “White Patients Only”.
Though prejudice and the KKK are a constant threat to their way of life, the folks of Bumblebee, North Carolina don’t let fear keep them down. Courage and determination become instigators of change in a town that has followed “white rules” for far too long.
When I read, I try to imagine the young reader whose hands I would put the book into. Unfortunately, I couldn’t think of a particular student as I was reading. I think it would take just the right reader to pick up this book and see it to completion. Most young readers, I imagine, would get bogged down and quickly replace the book back on the shelf. Which is a shame because “Stella by Starlight” is a good book with an important message.
For me, the book was a little slow to start. In the very opening of the story, Stella encounters the KKK, but after that, we don’t see much of them for quite a while. In fact, they become more of an ominous presence lurking in the background. But maybe they were intentionally written that way, as this is a book written for children. There is some story telling that happens in the middle, which I understand is an important part of the culture, but I wonder if it might detract from the main plot when being read by a child. At 320 pages, I think this would be a cumbersome story if the reader wasn’t completely engaged from beginning to end.
I thought Stella had some very admirable character traits, and would make a good role model for readers. However, I found that she and the other characters were somewhat one-dimensional. For example, the African-American characters seemed to all be “good guys”, while all the white characters, with maybe a small exception, were portrayed as the “bad guys”. I would have liked a character who skirted the edges a little, maybe struggling with their morals on the issue of race.
All that being said, I do think that “Stella by Starlight” is worth your time to read. The story is beautifully written, and I think it would be a great addition or supplement to a unit on civil rights or segregation. Teachers may even find this to be a treasured read aloud, providing students background knowledge and opportunities for discussion on a topic that they surely need exposure to. I especially love the author’s connection to this story, and how it took her so many years to write the book that was inspired by her grandmother’s diary. Check out this fantastic video for more information.
Title: “Stella by Starlight”
Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Publish Date: January 6, 2015
You might also enjoy: “Brown Girl Dreaming” by Jacqueline Woodson
My recommended age range: 5th-6th grade