REVIEW: My Friend, the Starfinder

My Friend, the Starfinder
by George Ella Lyon
Illustrated by Stephen Gammell
Atheneum, 2008

Have you ever encountered one of those books that just transports you the moment you see the endpapers? Then as you turn each subsequent page, it just soars? Then you read a second and third time and you notice all kinds of things you didn’t see in previous readings? Well, that’s the sort of book My Friend, the Starfinder is.

Written by George Ella Lyon and illustrated by Stephen Gammell, this book is very special. You’ll remember Gammell’s work, of course, from his Caldecott Medal-winning book Song and Dance Man. I loved Song and Dance Man – still do, in fact – but I can’t help but feel that My Friend, the Starfinder just leaves it behind (I realize some may feel like I’m blaspheming here). The endpapers resemble those Hubble telescope pictures you see of the galaxy. The first title page reminds me of those great swirly, colorful cloud scenes from the beginning of the movie The Neverending Story. Then the next title page appears to be another starscape…until you notice in the corner there’s a cabin and trees. And – look! – there are hidden star shapes in the sky! There’s no end to the little treasures in the artwork.

Oh, yes! The story! It’s told from the perspective of a young girl, looking back on her childhood, and she tells the story of an old man she befriended (or perhaps he befriended her) who told fantastical stories about catching falling stars and following a rainbow to its end. Naturally, the girl herself becomes a storyteller, thus keeping the Starfinder’s memory alive. The text is gorgeously written. My favorite part: “He wore old soft clothes and sat in an old chair on an old green porch and told stories. The stranger they were the truer he looked and I believed every one.” Beautiful.

However, it’s the artwork that really elevates this book. It’s at once impressionistic and detailed, grounded yet ethereal. The interaction of the colors is sometimes playful, sometimes poignant. The illustrations seem to indicate that the old man is very poor, with torn clothes and patched-up pants, causing the story to be that much more affecting. But as a reader, you feel elevated into the sky while reading this, leaving those earthly worries behind.

One quibble I do have is that there are two scenes where we see the old man as a young boy, and the reader has a very clear, detailed view of his face as a boy. I find this odd since we never see his face as an old man, and there are other scenes of him as a boy where it seems his face is deliberately obscured. So I find that choice by Gammell confusing. I felt pulled out of the mystery and slightly more earthbound. I assure, however, that this is a minor quibble and probably a weird quirky issue of my own, anyway.

To finish the book, Lyon shares an author’s note about Glen Dean, the real-life “starfinder” that she knew as a little girl. Then there are those starry endpapers.

Overall, this is imaginative with multiple layers of emotion and a dash of magic and mystery. I highly recommend it.


Anonymous said...

Hmmm. Are we thinking of perhaps giving Mr. Gammell a second go on a Caldecott? The mind boggles at the speech he'd write the second time.

Unknown said...

I would certainly put it in the running, considering what we've seen in the first part of 2008. I haven't read his first speech...I'm intrigued! I'll go on a search later today.

Charlotte said...

This sounds like a lovely book--thanks.