by Lisa Fipps
Nancy Paulsen Books (imprint of Penguin Random House)
Category: Middle Grade
Reviewer: Laurie Adler
Starfish, written by first-time novelist Lisa Fipps, is one of the best new tween novels on the trending subject of fat-phobia and body image. Ellie, an eleven-year-old Texan, is continuously body-shamed by her schoolmates and family. Since her fifth birthday party, she has been called “Splash” and compared to a whale. She lives by self-imposed fat girl rules -- “make yourself small,” “avoid eating in public,” “move slowly so your fat doesn’t jiggle” -- but the bullying escalates dangerously both at home and at school. Ellie’s only safe space is her swimming pool, where she feels weightless and can stretch out like a starfish. With only her father, her new neighbor Catalina, and a therapist to support her, Ellie valiantly finds her voice to confront rude doctors, cruel schoolmates, and even her own mother.
This novel is written in free verse and is engaging from page one. The format catapults the reader into Ellie’s brand of pathos and humor. Ellie is Jewish on her father’s side. Jewish content is minimal, but is positive and authentic. Judaism is primarily used as a foil to show how life ideally should be. For instance, the Yiddish word zaftig is defined in a body-positive way of “pleasantly plump.” Shabbat night is portrayed as a peaceful time, in contrast to her normally combative household. On Shabbat, Ellie’s mother blesses her with grace and kindness, although for the rest of the week she regularly hurts Ellie with her words. Catalina’s happy and emotionally healthy family reminds Ellie of her Jewish paternal grandmother. The Hanukkah celebration is a happy time, one of the few meals when Ellie is not nagged about fat and calories. Religion does not loom large in the plot, but is portrayed as a worthwhile alternative to a dehumanizing diet culture.
Starfish is an essential addition to any school or public library. It’s a traditional coming of age story about overcoming bullying, but with a fresh, sassy voice and frontline message about body positivity. It rings authentic, perhaps, as Lisa Fipps writes in her afterword, because the book is based on the author’s true experiences. Ellie learns to stretch out like a starfish, acknowledge her worth, and take up space in the world.
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