“To every kid who’s ever been told, “You’d be so pretty or handsome, if…” You ARE beautiful. Now. Just as you are. You deserve to be seen, to be heard, to take up room, to be noticed. So when the world tries to make you feel small, starfish!” – Introduction to Starfish
I tend to gravitate towards children’s books that tackle emotional and mental health issues- issues that are pervasive, and not often discussed in day-to-day life. These types of books lure me in, partially because I find them fascinating, but also because I believe they make me a more understanding and empathetic person for having read them. Lisa Fipps’ debut novel Starfish is one of the most beautiful and groundbreaking that I have read.
At first glance, it is a book about a tween-aged girl living in Texas named Eliana (Ellie, for short) who struggles with being overweight, or perhaps more accurately, with the bullying and harassment that comes with being overweight. By this point, your mind is likely recalling a similar-sounding middle-grade novel by the name Blubber, written by Judy Blume in the 1970’s. The similarities are there, to a point, and I believe, playfully embraced by Fipps, whose main character, like Blume’s, endures whale-themed nicknames. In one scene, Ellie even gives an oral report to her class on a book about whales, channeling Blume’s character Linda so clearly that it seems unmistakable. Though both books tackle childhood bullying in all of its raw, merciless glory, beyond that, the texts diverge significantly.
Written entirely in verse, Fipps’ Starfish achieves a powerful first-person narrative, boiled down a bit from the traditionally-written format of a middle-grade novel. As a result, Ellie’s own feelings, observations, and insights take center stage. She is not the showpiece of the novel–she is the human voice and the beating heart of it. Fipps is very open about the fact that everything in this book is based on real events that actually happened to her as a child, and I believe this is why, and how, she is able to delve into the emotional depth that she does.
Ellie’s bullies include her dysfunctional family, most notably her well-meaning but misguided mother, who wants to “fix” her at all costs. Fipps is not afraid of tackling such a painful and very real topic for today’s kids. Mothers are our mirrors when we are young, teaching us how to see ourselves and the world around us. What Fipps’ Ellie is able to do by the end of the novel is nothing short of amazing. With the help and support of a loving father, her pet pug Gigi, two best friends, and a gem of a therapist, she is able to reclaim her self-worth, and turn the mirror around on her abusers. She does this in a positive, self-advocating way that does not compromise the kind person that she is.
Starfish has so much to offer children of all types and all walks of life. It is, without a doubt, healing for anyone who has been bullied about their weight. It is also healing for anyone who has been bullied or made to feel small about anything, which, let’s face it, is most kids. Fipps manages to take the most valuable concepts of child psychology and expertly bake them into the plot line of the book, in effect, giving the young reader all of those insights to internalize and take with them into teenhood and adulthood. Despite the serious topics covered, it is a very fun and entertaining read. Ellie is funny and smart and destined for great things. If you are anything like me, this book will have you rooting for Ellie so hard, you may just cry tears of joy by the end.
“I deserve to be seen.
To be noticed.
To be heard.
To be treated like a human.
There’s plenty of room
one of us
in the world.”
About the Author
Lisa Fipps is an award-winning former journalist, current director of marketing for a public library, and an author of middle-grade books. Starfish is her debut novel.
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