MMGM and #IMWAYR: Starfish by Lisa Fipps
First of all, if you have a blog on Blogger and have no clue what to do about the FeedBurner email subscription mess, good news—I made a video tutorial on how to move your subscribers over to my service of choice, Mailchimp! Click here to watch it—I hope it is helpful!
I hope everyone is doing all right today! Summer is coming in just a few weeks, so I will have way more time to read books and write reviews. I do have some frantic weeks to get through before that, but I have somehow managed to get two different non-graphic-novel books into my reading schedule! One will be the subject next week's review, and the other is what I'll be reviewing today: the novel in verse Starfish by Lisa Fipps.
Library Matters and Lisa Maucione at Literacy on the Mind, I knew I had to finally get it read. And I'm so glad I did!
Starfish revolves around 12-year-old Ellie. Ellie is smart, kind, and a great writer, but many people see her for one thing only: her weight. It's bad enough that she gets bullied in school, that everyone calls her Splash because of the disastrous cannonball at her 5th-grade birthday pool party, or that she's had to write up a list of Fat Girl Rules to live by. But what's probably worst is that Ellie can't escape the judgment in her own home—her mother is obsessed with Ellie's weight, even pushing her to try bariatric surgery. At 12. Years. Old. Ellie has learned to make herself small to avoid scorn from the world. But with the help of a new friend named Catalina and a new therapist, Ellie realizes that maybe, like a starfish on the sea floor, she needs to stretch out, take up space, and fight for her place in the world.
So, I do need to just acknowledge that I have apparently no sense whatsoever of which books will be depressing—I thought this would be a light read, and, well...no. But ignoring that, this book is so powerful, and so well-written, and so good! First of all, I think most of us know that we should try to read books with diverse perspectives and learn about people who aren't necessarily like us. But I also think it is unnervingly easy to say, "Well, I've read a book about those kinds of people—now I'm informed!" I've been exposed to ideas about body image and fatphobia before in books (such as those by the utterly-amazing Julie Murphy) and TV shows (such as the Hulu original Shrill, which actually has its last season coming out on Friday—sniff). And so I thought that reading this book might be a waste of my time, and that it might just rehash stuff I already knew and had thought about. But here's the thing: there is more than one type of experience in the world, even for people with similar characteristics. And after reading Starfish, I am quite sure that I was (and am) ridiculously ignorant about the struggles that fat people face in the world, and I am also quite sure that this book opened my eyes to countless different things through the perspective of Ellie. So, in short, you can decide not to read this book for all kinds of reasons, but don't decide not to read it because you don't need to hear what it has to say. Trust me. You do.
So what does Starfish have to say about the experience of people like Ellie? Well, quite a bit. Tons of moments and quotes in this book stuck out to me, and although I didn't go a great job keeping track of the specific ones I wanted to share, I do have one here from page 154: "'...I mean, I'm not even sure being fat / really bothers me. / How people treat me / because I'm fat bothers me.'" I wanted to share this quote specifically because I think many of us have this idea that the only issue fat people have is not feeling confident about their body. But we fail to remember where that lack of confidence comes from: not just hidden messages in magazines, but often, completely overt prejudice and hate. Author Lisa Fipps says the following in her author's note: "Starfish is a work of fiction, and a lot of people will read this and think, 'It's definitely fiction because people would never say or do such cruel things.' But a variation of every single mean thing people said or did to Ellie happened to me as a child. Fat Girl Rules exist." There's a point in the story where, at a restaurant, a father teaches his kid to walk over to Ellie, completely randomly, and insult her. There's a point in the story where tourists try to take a picture of Ellie, as if she is some curiosity to be gawked at. There's a point in the story where Ellie's mother, knowing that Ellie wants to learn to play the piano like the rest of her family, decides not to teach her unless she loses weight. (Again, in case it's not clear, Ellie's mother is just terrible.) I could go on, but really, just read the book. My point is, our discussions about the subliminal messages that fat people internalize miss the point that many of these messages aren't subliminal at all—they're as overt as anything could be.
So how does Ellie deal with all of this? Well, it's pretty obvious from my review that this book isn't all rainbows and sunshine, but there are ways in which this book keeps you turning the pages, clamoring to find out what comes next. First of all, Ellie isn't just some pitiful protagonist who has horrible things happen to her—she is an amazing kid, full of wisdom and bravery and good things. All Ellie needs is the space to shine as brightly as she deserves to, and luckily, there are people in Ellie's life who work to bring her that space. (I get the sense from online interviews that Fipps's own life was more lacking in these people—again, remember that even the most honest stories do ultimately get made a little more palatable to an audience, and there's always more than we see on the surface.) But back to Ellie. Ellie makes friends with a girl named Catalina at the start of the book. The two girls bond over things like Latin music and swimming, and Catalina could care less about Ellie's size or how people perceive it. I really do wish that every Ellie in the world could have a Catalina as a friend—that would make things so much better. Luckily, Ellie also has someone who might be more accessible to the general world: a therapist. Ellie starts seeing Dr. Wood early in the book, and in some exceedingly-well-written therapy scenes, Dr. Wood teaches Ellie to think about her emotions, to replace her negative cognitions with positive ones (good-old CBT kinds of stuff), and to stand up for herself in different aspects of her life. It's heartbreaking that Ellie has to be the one to stand up to the bullies around her, but ultimately, most kids will have to do the same if they want change, so I'm glad that Fipps took the time to show kids that, if they have the will, it can be done. (Let's try to do our part in the world to make sure kids don't have to muster up this kind of courage in the first place, though.) And I do want to mention as well that, in general, Lisa Fipps has infused her truly fantastic verse writing (which allows this short story to pack a punch) with plenty of variety and just enough happiness to keep you reading.
My brain is doing that thing where it totally fails me, so I think I must conclude my review soon. But before I do, I do want to share one more quote, this one from Fipps's acknowledgement of her editor, Nancy Paulsen: "Originally, I wrote Starfish as a young adult novel. Nancy said I should rewrite it for middle grade because, as a YA novel, those who'd been bullied about their weight would read it and think, 'Yep. That happened to me. It was horrible.' But Nancy said if I rewrote Starfish as a middle-grade novel, I'd be able to reach kids while they're being bullied. I could help them realize their worth and give them the courage and tools they needed to confront the bullies. And maybe, just maybe, Starfish would reach the bullies and get them to stop. Nancy. Is. A. Genius. Pure. Genius." The reason I share that quote (besides its obvious greatness) is that it shows how this book really could change lives. Starfish gives young readers the tools to stand up for themselves in situations where no one else will stand up for them, and such tools will be invaluable both for kids bullied about their weight and for kids facing all kinds of challenges in general. I really hope that schools and libraries are able to get this book into the hands of kids so that it can help them, but in the meantime, I cannot recommend enough that you pick up a copy of Starfish. You'll be heartbroken, you'll be enraged, and you'll be turning the pages frantically to see how life turns out for Ellie. But more than that, you'll learn how we all have a part to play in the world in ensuring that kids and adults of all types feel safe, loved, and proud. In short: don't miss this book.
My rating is: Really good!