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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Standing Up to Bullies and Racism: three possible Newbery contenders

STARFISH by Lisa Fipps

Lisa Fipps’ STARFISH was the clear leader in our list of suggestions for possible Newbery contenders which ran from March through September.

The novel in verse form seems like just the right way to tell Eliana’s story. The poems are from her point of view, creating strong empathy and keen insights into her world. The opening poem sets the stage nicely. We get astrong sense of her sense of kinship with the water, but the closing line tells us that her joy will be short-lived:

As soon as I slip into the pool,

I am weightless.


For just a while.

p. 13 (pagination is from the e-book version; not sure if it matches the print)

Many poems address the harshness of being an overweight girl in a variety of ways. Some are powerful and direct, like “Fat Girl Rules” (17) and “The Thing About Fatdar.” (23) Others are more subtle, but equally effective; in “Lucky Dog” she envies her pug:

She’s happy with her round body.



And no one bullies her because of it.

Lucky dog.

p 31

There’s also a solid plot, as Eliana learns to trust a new (thin) friend, deals with harassment at school, and gradually connects with her mother. She’s a very engaging character. She gets repeatedly hurt, but we see the strength behind that throughout, and in the end it’s a hopeful and inspiring story. It’s one that will resonate with kids and perhaps with Newbery Committee members. Style, characterizations, and especially “interpretation of…theme” are especially strong.

PITY PARTY by Kathleen Lane

Kathleen Lane examines the agonies of middle school in a highly creative way, with a variety of short pieces about kids who are outsiders in one way or another. Some of the short stories are fairly realistic while many are more fantastical and/or satirical, like “Remembering Elena,” a “tribute” to a twelve-year-old girl who has died of embarrassment. (62-63). Along with stories, she mixes in a variety of other formats, including personality quizzes, mock ads (for new friends and a “happy head”), a “choose your own catastrophe” feature, and a “Chart of Relative Calamity.” 

The use of satire and varied forms creates a fascinating mix of drama and humor, and most of it is engaging and thought-provoking. Initially there’s a sense of hopelessness as the chapters zero in on just how terrible kids can be to each other. But towards the end, there’s a positive shift as the kids in the stories take action in creative ways. “Behaviorally Challenged,” “Followers,” and “True Story” all end on upbeat notes, as does the final, triumphant chapter of the recurring segments of “The Voice.” What feels at first like a random set of imaginative pokes at middle school dynamics turns into a powerful reading experience, as inspiring as STARFISH in its own way.    

I can see PITY PARTY standing up well in terms of the Newbery Criteria. It’s especially strong in “Interpretation of theme or concept,” and “Appropriateness of style” and certainly qualifies as “individually distinct.”


This book tackles racism from a variety of angles, starting with the bullying the title character undergoes because of her Korean heritage. Junie becomes clinically depressed and separates from her friends as a result. The bullying is overt and violent; and also on the increase, as Junie tells her Grandpa:

Everything’s different now, Grandpa, ever since the election. People don’t even try to hide their racism.

p 74

Then a surprising shift 80 pages in jumps us back to her Grandfather’s traumatic experiences as a child during the Korean War. The historical stories are vivid and exciting, capturing the violence and the excruciating choices people must make during wartime. After the narrative returns to Junie’s current problems, she gets another extended story of the war, this time from her grandmother.

The connection between Junie’s experiences and her grandparents’ is clear, expressed by her grandfather as “this deep, hateful division caused by conflicting ideologies.” (p 74) The way Junie absorbs her family history and uses it to address her own problems is believable and inspiring.

The shifting narratives work well. The historical pieces are told in a slightly more formal tone, with life-and-death events, while Junie’s first-person narration captures the very real damage that racism causes. The girl’s relationship with her grandparents deepens in a convincing way, through the shared family stories. Some of the conversations with her grandfather, though, seemed a bit lecture-y at times.

Overall, this is an engaging exploration of multiple aspects of racism, as well as the ways in which people can fight it.

I’m curious to see how FINDING JUNIE KIM might fare in a Newbery discussion. I also definitely want to hear more about the widespread enthusiasm for STARFISH…and if there might be support for an outlier like PITY PARTY.

Steven Engelfried About Steven Engelfried

Steven Engelfried is the Library Services Manager at the Wilsonville Public Library in Oregon. He served on the 2010 Newbery committee, chaired the 2013 Newbery Committee, and also served on the 2002 Caldecott committee. You can reach him at


  1. Emily Mroczek-Bayci says

    I’m currently listening to the audio of JUNIE KIM and definitely am feeling that it reads like an “agenda/ issue” book. I’m excited to see the shift into historical. So what genre would we say this book is? Historical or realistic fiction? Or both!

    I haven’t even started Pity Party, but I am a sucker for distinct style- so maybe that’s worth a read.

    The theme of fat acceptance, is SO SO important and well done. The bullying by her mother and siblings is SO, SO real, but so are Ellie’s feelings that she doesn’t deserve this and she isn’t buying into this.
    On my post the other day, Meredith and Julie Ann comment about concerns with the characterizations of secondary characters- particularly Ellie’s brother and mom. I feel like that is intentional though– showing that those characters still need a lot of growth. And even though Ellie and her sister are progressing, some people just aren’t willing to make progress- or it’s a lot lot lot slower.
    Sense of setting was strong to me, with the scene at the beginning Steven mentioned and also in the restaurant scene where the little boy and his dad laughed at Ellie. That was so rude and terrible and awful, but something that really does happen and parents that really do encourage the scheming. The way they awkwardly left portrays how uncomfortable and awkward these situations are.
    I really appreciated the portrayal of therapy, how Ellie was resistant towards it at the beginning but how it helped her progress and grow.
    I thought the portrayal of interviewing primary care doctors was important too and sheds light on issues with the healthcare system.

    • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says

      I also like the way therapy worked into STARFISH. Junie in FINDING JUNIE KIM also had a positive experience with a therapist, and there was nothing wrong with the way it fit into the story, but in STARFISH we see how important is to get the right person. And how that can be hard to manage….it’s not just an automatic fix.

    • Julie Ann Corsaro says

      In my previous post about STARFISH, I used as examples of stock characters the next door neighbors and the mean girls from school. I didn’t mention Ellie’s family members. Thanks for noting this.

      • Emily Mroczek-Bayci says

        Oh yes, thanks for the clarification. The next door neighbors did seem conveniently perfect.. and the girls from school were SOO awful… and I’m not sure If I can offer justification for them!

  2. Meredith Burton says

    I loved the unique reading experience of Pity Party. The varying styles of narrative were all engaging. I loved the frame narrative of The Voice story, which explored fears and inadequacies. The story had a delightfully creepy feel, and having other stories, poems and other genre forms sandwiched between The Voice sections provided some relief from the intensity of the frame narrative. My favorite story was the one about the origin of the word bully. It was hilarious and poignant. I also loved the opening and closing conversational poems that invited readers of all types into Ms. Lane’s quirky worlds. I would be happy to see Pity Party win a Newbery or at least an honor. It’s unusual and would be relatable to many kids.
    As I have previously stated, I loved Starfish very much. Eliana’s internal thoughts are beautifully portrayed, and her first-person narrative is so candid and genuine. I loved Eliana’s relationship with her father and the therapy sessions. My favorite poem occurs during one of the sessions, when Eliana and Dr. Wood role play about Eliana’s mistreatment. Eliana describes herself as a marshmallow melting in a cup of scalding chocolate, and the imagery is so hard-hitting and profound. It brought tears to my eyes. I do feel that some of the characters in Starfish are not fully fleshed out. In particular, I found the mother to be one-dimensional. I never felt that the conflict between Eliana and her mother was adequately resolved. However, this might have been the author’s intent. After all, it’s Eliana who develops her own self-confidence, and in the real world, things don’t miraculously change despite this fact. I did appreciate the author’s honesty, and I especially loved that Eliana’s development of self-worth did not come through weight loss. I did feel that Liam, ELiana’s brother, was a horrible character, and I think I even disliked him more than the mother.
    I hope to read Finding Junie Kim soon.

  3. I appreciated what STARFISH was going for. Representation is important. It was encouraging and its depiction of therapy was optimistic and useful. But the protagonist’s voice was totally unconvincing. It felt like an adult speaking through a child, and in a clumsy, heavy-handed way. I’m also not sure what verse brought to the table. Overall, I’d be really disappointed if it won the Newbery.

    • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says

      Dougherty mentions that Eliana’s voices was “unconvincing” in a “clumsy, heavy-handed way.” I wouldn’t got that far, but I’m not as sold on this book as some, and think the “adult speaking through a child” that Dougherty notes is something to look at. Eliana’s situation is compelling and she’s a character we root for…but does the writing really stand out that brightly? I thought the verse was most effective when she reflective on how she sees herself and is seen by others. “Hard-hitting and profound,” as Meredith puts it. The more narrative pieces did the job of furthering the plot, and are needed for variety, but don’t really shine in the same ways.

      I rooted for the protagonist of A CHANCE TO FLY (Nat is in a wheelchair) in the same way I wanted Eliana to thrive. CHANCE seemed a little more obvious in its messaging, but it was just a more interesting story, and though the fact that Nat is in a wheelchair is a part of everything, I thought she was a more distinct character than Eliana, beyond the things that limit both of them (wheelchair/weight). Part of that is the difference between prose and verse, but it brings me back to thinking about Eliana as a fully developed character vs. a vehicle for insight and discussion.

  4. Rox Anne Close says

    PITY PARTY was a unique read, extremely clever and darkly funny. I appreciated the very real understanding the author presented of the middle school experience. The format was definitely a fresh approach with individual narratives interspersed with the tongue-in-cheek quizzes, and the messages from the sponsors were unique – Happy Friends and Happy Heads. Like Meredith, my favorite story was the one about the origin of the word bully, I too found it hilarious, but poignant. I agree with Steven that PITY PARTY is especially strong in ‘Interpretation of Theme or Concept’, and it shines in appropriateness of style for Junior High students. The stories contain elements of satire, that could lead to cynicism, but instead they inspire courage to be yourself.

  5. Rox Anne Close says

    I thought STARFISH was very strong in ‘Interpretation of Theme’. It showed the devastating affect of ‘fat shaming’ on an individual. I haven’t seen many books that addressed that issue. I loved the growth Ellie went through to claim her space, and the image of ‘starfishing’ to claim that space was beautiful. I loved the positive interactions Ellie had with her counselor and how it was an integral part of the narrative. I thought the writing style was strong with clever language, that was full of voice – ‘Dr. Woodn’t-You-Like-to Know (p 34), to ‘Dad Judased me’ (p 46). I thought the character of Ellie was strong, her spirited self talk, her fortitude and bravery in the face of adversity. Although I agree with Dougherty, that Ellie’s character did appear to be a little too mature for a middle schooler, and at times felt like an adult speaking through a child. I did have issues with some of the secondary characters. Catalina, her friend, seemed to be conveniently there whenever Ellie needed her. Is that realistic? As Emily said, the next door neighbor seemed conveniently perfect. I agree with Meredith, that the character of Ellie’s mom seemed one dimensional. I really struggled with the mom’s harshness toward Ellie. She refused to buy her new school clothes because of her weight (p 22), refused to let her take piano lessons until she loses weight (p 51), went through the trash, inventorying food, and making Ellie spit out a cracker (p 53-54), bringing her to a bariatric surgeon (199-202), allowing Ellie’s siblings to bully her, and posting weight loss articles on the frig. Would a mom really be that mean to her daughter? Lucky for Ellie, her dad was extremely supportive. I thought the book wrapped up rather quickly. The incident of Ellie losing her dog Gigi, and the confrontation with Kortnee and Marissa and the whale cake seemed unrealistic to me. Would Ellie’s lost dog realistically show up at her enemies door? Would Kortnee and Marissa actually have time to bake a whale cake? Did this scene even need to be in the book? This incident was followed by Ellie’s confrontation with her mom in the counselor’s office. It seems mom has a lot to work out. Was Ellie okay after that counseling session? Or was everything A-okay now with her mom?
    But overall I loved the theme of this book and as Meredith state. I loved how Ellie’s self-worth did not come through weight loss.

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