Lily lives with her grandparents in a small town, her mother having died in a car accident when she was very young. At the opening of the book Lily’s dog, Lucky, who is old and blind has taken off running and Salma Santiago (a daughter of one of the migrant worker families who comes to pick blueberries in the summer) is able to catch Lucky before he accidentally hurts himself. So begins an unexpected friendship between the two girls.
As Lily begins to pursue her friendship with Salma she is more conscious of the feelings, attitudes and assumptions other townspeople have regarding the migrant worker families. Salma’s strong, independent thinking style is frightening to Lily.
When Salma says to Lily
That’s what I like about art. It lets me become more like myself, not more like everyone else.
Lily begins to challenge her own thinking:
Maybe when we see things all the time, we stop really looking at them. And it takes an artist, someone who can look past the ordinariness, to remind us how special they really are.
Painting bee houses with Salma is the beginning for Lily. She marvels at Salma’s bold use of color and line and shape. She is shocked by Salma’s idea to compete for the Blueberry Queen title in their traditional small-town pageant. Even though she thinks Salma’s reasons are valid and well-thought out, she worries about the reaction of the townspeople to something so different and unexpected. She is afraid for her friend–that she will be treated badly or hurt. And she is afraid of what that means for herself–IF she openly supports her new friend.
Reading Cynthia Lord’s newest work, A Handful of Stars, I wasn’t sure–at first–what, exactly, the book was trying to be. Is it a story about the treatment of migrant worker families? Is it about growing up and changing friendships? Is it about letting go of grief? All these themes are interwoven into Lily’s story. Ultimately, though, A Handful of Stars is a deft combination of all these things. It is a story of one girl’s struggle for courage in her own life: the courage to find her own voice when standing next to a friend who is making a difficult choice, to speak with her own voice as she defines herself as an individual. Getting older and discovering you have different ideas and opinions than the adults around you who have raised you and love you can be exhilarating and scary at the same time.
The piece of this story that has stayed with me is Lily’s realization that “courage” is not some daunting, overwhelming quality or characteristic. When it occurs to her that she only has to be a little more courageous than afraid in order to do something scary her entire perspective about what she is capable of doing shifts drastically. A Handful of Stars is a book that is easy to read in language and structure, genuine in the emotion and voice of Lily, its main character, and significant in its non-preachy message about doing something you know is right–even when it’s hard.