‘Starfish’ by Lisa Fipps is a sensitively written middle grade novel in free verse about image and bullies

Starfish by Lisa Fipps

“Starfish” is Lisa Fipps’ debut novel, and it’s a winner. Think Jennifer Weiner for middle grade readers and you will come close to picturing this book. It’s about Ellie, who is known as Splash for an unfortunate exclamation made by her older sister when she did a cannonball into the family pool at age five. It’s tough being a five-year-old and having your mother and everyone in your family berate you for your weight. The only one on Ellie’s side is her dad, but it’s not enough.

We meet Ellie when she’s eleven, and we realize that Ellie may be zaftig, which is one of the kinder words used to describe her, but she’s also smart and funny. And her narration makes us feel what she’s feeling as she describes the horrible things she experiences in a world where being thin is a universal goal.

Perhaps it’s Ellie’s mother who is the worst in my mind. Mothers are supposed to love unconditionally, but Ellie’s mother is hateful. I originally wrote “almost hateful,” but she’s truly hateful. Ellie doesn’t think her mother loves her, and we readers must agree. Her mother covers the fridge with diet articles and information on bariatric surgery. She tracks everything Ellie eats and goes through Ellie’s garbage looking for contraband.

On Thanksgiving, she only serves turkey, Brussel sprouts and mashed cauliflower. Ellie’s brother is always nasty to her, and this time is no different. He complains about having her as a sister and storms out looking for a “normal” Thanksgiving dinner. One of the worst instances of her mother’s cruelty is her reaction when Ellie expresses her desire to take piano lessons. Everyone in her family has played the piano. “Do you really want to learn?” her mother asks her. And when Ellie says she does, her mother shuts the lid over the keys and tells her she would get them when she loses weight. Ellie tells us, “So now I never let Mom know what I want because she’ll keep it from me as punishment for being fat disguised as motivation to lose weight.”

Ellie has a journal with “Fat Girl Rules” that her mom unwittingly taught her. One of them is: If you’re fat, there are things you can’t have. The stories Ellie shares are shameful, not because Ellie is overweight, but because of the abuse her mother perpetrates on her. Ellie also shares with us the bullying she is subject to at school. Her teachers do nothing.

But Ellie does have those who are on her side. Her best friend has moved away, but a new girl her age, Catalina, moves in next door, and Ellie is welcomed into their loud and loving family without any prejudice. Catalina’s older brother is funny and kind — the opposite of Liam, Ellie’s older brother who is intentionally cruel and hateful. Ellie’s dad is also supportive, and he ends up taking her to talk to a psychiatrist who becomes extremely important in helping Ellie. She aides Ellie in realizing that Ellie needs to respond to the bullying. She needs to defend herself and stick up for herself. Instead of internalizing the hatred and abuse that is directed at her, Ellie needs to replace the untrue negative thoughts with true, positive thoughts. And slowly, she does.

The book doesn’t have a fairy tale ending. We don’t know if Ellie lives happily ever after. But we do know that she comes to love herself, and she comes to stand up for herself. Ellie realizes that her self worth is not based on how others view her, but on how she thinks of herself.

This is a book about acceptance and understanding. It’s about bullying and cruelty. It’s about feeling alone and isolated. But it’s a story that will resonate with many. Bullying happens for many reasons, not just weight. But in our society, where looking like a model, wearing the right clothes, driving the right car, having the right job, and living in the right neighborhood is the goal of many, being different can feel like having a target on one’s back. Or heart.

This book resonated with me. I have struggled with weight since my teens, and while running five miles a day helped during periods of time, and medication helped at other times, wearing size 6 clothes was a rare occurrence in my life. I remember shopping for an interview suit with my mother when I graduated from college and my mother’s horror that I needed a size 14, the largest the shop carried. My mother was a size 4 her whole life and bragged that after giving birth to twins at the beginning of December, by Christmas she was back wearing her regular clothes. I gained 50 pounds with my first child, and 35 years later have still not shed it all. I can identify with Ellie.

“Starfish” will do for middle grade readers what Jennifer Weiner’s books have done for adult women. It’s a book in which some children will see someone like themselves, someone who is not thin, who feels unloved by her family, and who doesn’t feel like she fits in. Incidentally, we also see that one of the bullies is someone who is frightened of being bullied himself for a different reason. Bullying, unfortunately, is universal. It’s not just about being overweight, but not having the right clothes, not speaking without an accent, bringing the wrong food for lunch — or getting the free lunch at school. It’s about not getting accepted to the right school, or needing help in reading. In any way that someone might be different, or stand out, there is a real threat of being bullied.

It needs to stop. We need more books like “Starfish” and others that demand this.

Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by Nancy Paulsen Books, the publisher, for review purposes.