What I loved about this book…where to begin? The ebb and flow of Cynthia Lord’s words pulled at my heart and made me laugh, cry, and sigh. You know those books that just feel like they were written for you? This is that type of book. Through Lily’s desperate attempts to save her dog’s eyesight, we get a glimpse of a girl struggling with grief and loneliness. Lily is being raised by her grandparents in a small town in Maine where their livelihood depends on the blueberry/tourist season. Lily raises money for Lucky’s eye surgery by painting bee boxes for the native mason bees. She stencils the patterns on, carefully detailing blueberries and bees. When Selma joins her one-day in painting the boxes, Lily is surprised to find Selma creating pink bees, and yellow blueberry stars. Lily is convinced that Selma is painting “wrong,” but Selma replies, “That’s what I like about art. It lets me become more like myself, not more like everyone else.” As their friendship forms, both girls bond over their shared purpose to give Lucky his sight back. Lily and Selma decide to buy a booth at the local Blueberry Festival selling their painted bee boxes. While Lily worries that Selma’s crazy colors and freehand paint jobs will scare away customers, Selma reminds Lily that sometimes being different is exactly what the world needs.
Lord’s book is full of beautiful insight; her language is moving and strikes the reader’s heart with each page. I’m in awe of writers who can layer their stories, not only with a strong plot, but also with clever dialogue and lyrical prose.
Speaking of layered plot, this book has so many subplots and themes running through it, you’d think it would overwhelm the reader for such a short novel. Nothing could be farther from the truth. While Lily struggles with her identity (or lack thereof), Selma struggles with being invisible. Through these two girls’ insecurities Lord brings attention to diversity. The conversation is not heavy-handed, but as natural as Selma and Lily’s friendship. While Lily has grown up seeing migrant workers come and go with the blueberry season, having a friend that works in the fields makes Lily far more attuned to the subtle prejudices around her. I am so glad that Lord didn’t skirt around the topic of migrant workers, but did her best to illuminate a culture that isn’t widely written about in a middle grade setting.
While Selma teaches Lily about a lot of things (like blueberries), she ultimately teaches Lily how to be brave, which is the heart and soul of this novel. Sometimes we perceive our differences to be weaknesses - something undesirable. The beautiful thing about A Handful of Stars is how it reminds readers that being different and being brave are often the same thing, and that “To do brave things, you don’t have to be hugely brave. You only have to be a little bit braver than you are scared.” Which is a beautiful encouragement to readers of any age.