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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Heavy Medal Mock Newbery Finalist: STARFISH by Lisa Fipp

     Introduction by Heavy Medal Award Committee member Aryssa Damon.

Starfish

Hearts will be broken, tears will be shed, and lives will be changed through Lisa Fipp’s incredible novel in verse, STARFISH. Perfect for the moment we are living in, but resonating with anyone who has ever been told how different or imperfect they were, STARFISH guts you.

 STARFISH is a novel in verse about Ellie—and saying her name is very important, because most people in her life call her Splash or Whale. Ellie’s not ashamed of being fat, she is abhorred by how people treat her because she is fat—and the reader will be too. As Fipps points out in her author’s note, while Ellie’s story may be fictional, it is rooted in the real bullying that so many fat kids have experienced in their daily lives. When Ellie’s new school year starts with her best friend moving away and a therapist coming into her life, she doesn’t see how it could be much worse. The school year proves brutal for Ellie, and therapy ends up being a surprising bright side for her as she learns the power of her own voice and how to take up the space she deserves.  For Ellie, that not only means learning to stand up to her bullies at school, but the ones in her own home as well.

This is a truly heart-opening read, and will resonate with young readers and their parents alike. No one deserves to be tormented—and that’s what is happening to Ellie—for who they are. No one deserves a home that does not feel safe.  Fipp’s verse—as written by Ellie—is full of the heart of a middle grade reader, but also the heavy weight she’s had to bear.  As Ellie finds her voice, and learns to take up space, the verse becomes even more imperative to the reader as a way to connect with Ellie and also to let her flow through them, filling them with the kind of empathy few other books this year have been able to imbue.

Lines like, “It’s unknown how many students’ lives librarians have saved by welcoming loners at lunch” [p 31] give that relatable, tender moment, and then lines like, “As I look over it, I realize I’ve been preparing for a trial, offering up a defense of why I should be loved. I toss it in the trash” [p 237] cut the reader off at the knees, sending them tumbling into Ellie’s emotions.

STARFISH is Lisa Fipps’ debut novel, and while I am certain she has a bright career ahead of her, even if this was the only piece we ever saw from her, it would feel like a gift.

Heavy Medal Award Committee members and others are now invited to discuss this book further in the Comments section below. Please start with positive observations first; stick to positives until at least three comments have been posted or we reach 1:00 pm EST. Let the Mock Newbery discussion begin!

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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 sengelfried@yahoo.com.

Comments

  1. Starfish was one of my favorite reads of 2021, and I have been unable to forget the book since I read it in early March. Ellie’s heartwrenching feelings, the realistic use of therapy, and the way she finds self-confidence is so vivid. THe book hits a bit too close to home for me, but it was realistic and strong. I would have loved to have a book like this one growing up.

  2. I think this is a very strong contender. Bullying is such a common them in juvenile lit, but it sometimes focuses too much on understanding the bully, or places the burden on the bullied. This book is all about Ellie finding her own voice, with help from her therapist. Though she does learn to stand up for herself, it’s more about her understanding that she has worth as a person and advocating for herself. I really like the focus on body positivity it definitely puts a new spin on an often explored topic.

    • Emily Smith says

      Dawn, I like how you’ve described how bullying is a common theme among middle grade novels. More often than not, we learn why the bully is a bully, developing empathy for them in the same moment that their bullying resolves. In this one, however, a unique spin is that the mother is a bully. I don’t remember seeing that before, except for stories where the parent is straight up abusive. (To be clear, I would consider Ellie’s mom abusive, but in the emotional sense that is not as obvious to a middle grade reader as physical abuse.)

      One tiny criticism I have, but it isn’t the author’s fault: I wish that the girl pictured on the cover were even bigger! To my eyes, the girl on the cover is just barely plump. Since celebrating Ellie’s size is so central to the story, I think it would have been empowering to picture her even bigger than that!

  3. Andrea Tyler says

    I laughed, I cried and I got angry and then hopeful. So many emotions while reading this book! This was also one of my favorites books from 2021. I really liked honest this book was about bullying and in particular the type of bullying Ellie receives from her mother. I also really appreciated that Ellie goes to therapy to gain self acceptance and learn how to defend herself. I’m glad that going to therapy is showing up more and more in books for young people. There’s so many complex relationships and storylines in this book and I think the author did a great job making this book accessible to a larger audience that may need to read a book like this.

  4. Lisa Levin says

    This was my favorite book as well and the students are crazy for it too! There is such a buzz for the book. We had the opportunity to virtually meet Lisa Fipps before Winter break and she was fabulous with the kids. They were so engrossed in listening to her and had such great questions that she enjoyed answering about the book and the topic. She talked a lot about bullying and writing the book. I think her verse is done very well and the topic is very important I would love to see it explored more in books.

  5. Wendy Baker says

    Starfish is a well-written account of some pretty severe bullying from an unexpected source – Ellie’s mom. As others mentioned, the use and normalization of therapy as a means to handle the bullying and to gain a sense of self worth, is an important change in middle grade lit. I really can’t give enough praise to Starfish. I think the novel-in-verse format was an excellent choice for delivering this important story. Starfish is certainly worthy of consideration for the Newbery.

  6. Wendy Baker says

    Starfish certainly deserves consideration for this year’s Newbery. Ellie’s story is one of bullying from what many would consider to be an unlikely source. Unfortunately, it may be more common than we realize. The way author Lisa Fipps gives voice to Ellie’s story in the novel-in-verse form is both heartbreaking and empowering. When reading this book with students (I’ve read it with two different classes now), most are shocked that one of the worst sources of bullying is Ellie’s own family, especially her mother. While this is heartbreaking, the power Ellie finds through therapy is an amazing part of this story. The journey Ellie takes with her therapist is one that needs representation in middle grade novels. Lisa Fipps does a great job of normalizing therapy and showing it as a powerful tool in realizing one’s self-worth. I recommend this book as often as I can and I would love to see it receive this year’s medal.

  7. Starfish is my favorite book from 2021. I usually struggle with novels in verse, but this book was so well done. I could easily see Ellie’s struggles and I could see how she grew as her own advocate. My favorite line from the story was about how doctors are not one size fits all. You need to find someone you are comfortable with and I wish someone would have told me that when I was younger.

  8. Rox Anne Close says

    I thought STARFISH was strong in ‘Interpretation of Theme. I haven’t seen many books that addressed the issue of ‘fat shaming’. It’s definitely an important topic. I loved the growth Ellie went through to claim her space, her spirited self-talk, and the positive interaction Ellie had with her counselor. I rooted for her throughout the book.

    I had mixed feelings about some of the secondary characters. Ellie’s neighbor Catalina seemed to be conveniently there whenever Ellie needer her. Is that realistic? I struggled with the harshness of Ellie’s mom, refusing to buy her new school clothes because of her weight, or refusing to let her take piano lessons until she loses weight, going through her trash, inventorying food, making her spit out a cracker. etc. Would a mom really be that mean to her daughter? The incident of Ellie losing her dog Gigi, and the confrontation with the mean girls, Kortnee and Marissa, and the whale cake seemed unrealistic to me. Would Ellie’s lost dog realistically show up at her enemies door? Would the mean girls actually have time to bake a whale cake?. I know in the ‘Author’s note’ section that she stated that a variation of every single mean thing people said or did to Ellie happened to her when she was a child, so maybe I am wrong in evaluating these secondary characters, but to me they seemed so one dimensional at times.

    Overall I loved the theme of this book and I loved how Ellie’s self-worth did not come through weight loss.

  9. Amanda Bishop says

    What a fantastic book! I love how Fipps approaches body image and self-esteem. There are few books that discuss fatness and fatphobia for children and I think this novel in verse is perfect for discussing these issues. Ellie is such a strong character and it is heartbreaking to see how people in her life treat her because she is fat. I agree with others that the inclusion of therapy in middle grade is so welcome.

    I think Starfish is such a contribution to children’s literature. It is honest and reflective and Ellie is a standout character who readers will truly empathize with.

  10. Leonard Kim says

    The author’s note in STARFISH states, “My hope is that Starfish will change people’s attitudes.” Based on the comments here about readers’ emotional response, the author’s hope should certainly be fulfilled. But because of that, some of the praise here seems to fall within the Newbery Terms and Criteria prohibition: “The award is not for didactic intent.” I’d like to hear about examples of excellence in criteria that committee members “need to consider” like setting, plot, and character. Because I agree with Rox Anne and some others that there could be questions, for example, about excellence in “delineation of characters.” I myself in another comment said they seemed rather black hat/white hat to me. Since I am not on the HM committee, I haven’t done a re-read. I read the book in October and Ellie, specifically as a character, as a personality, isn’t particularly indelibly impressed upon me. I certainly remember the cruel things she experienced – those tellings were raw and visceral and memorable. But I think I could tell you more about Reha’s personality and character than Ellie’s, even though I read RED WHITE AND WHOLE 5 months before I read STARFISH. I am struggling to remember peak excellence in some of the other Criteria as well and would appreciate some examples of those. One might argue that an intentionally didactic book may need obviously-drawn characters and a non-specific setting and a predictable plot arc and so we should “not expect to find excellence in each of the named elements.” And I might agree, but I would personally prefer that those Criteria still be pertinent, even in an intentionally didactic book, and that STARFISH should be shown to “have distinguished qualities in all of the elements.”

    • I agree, Leonard. Let’s talk about “delineation of characters.” A Latinx reader told me they found the Latinx neighbor family to be a little flat and stereotypical feeling. I agreed with that assessment. I wonder if others have thought this or received that feedback as well?

    • I read this one around the same time and I find myself struggling to remember much about it as well, beyond the things that happened to Ellie. When I finished the book I thought “oh, that was great, I really loved it” but it didn’t come to mind at all when I compiled my list of favorite books for the year, even though I had just read it a couple of months before. Maybe a book doesn’t have to be particularly memorable to be Newbery-worthy, but I do feel that the best winners are, including many that I read 20-25 years ago as a child myself and still remember more vividly than I remember STARFISH.

    • I also completely agree with you Leonard!
      I also don’t really remember much of the book, and even though I gave it 4 stars when I read it, when I went back to see my rating I was surprised I rated it that high. I agree that Red, White, and Whole is a much stronger contender.

  11. Stephanie Saggione says

    I agree- this was also my favorite of the books. It got even better on the second reading! So many images stuck with me- being careful not to make waves, the librarian’s first smile of the day, Charlie in the chocolate factory, the Hungry Games in the cafeteria, and “it’s time for you to carry the weight”. Wow. I thought the characters were well done. Fipps took the realistic ideas of a mean brother and a mom who is trying to fix her daughter to a whole new level. Even though they were hard to imagine, I thought they were believable. They were balanced by the sister and dad who tried to intervene- although I wish they had done a lot more.
    I was so glad to read about Ellie’s swimming because it was clear that her diet and exercise were healthy. People naturally have different body types and that was clear in the book. I was curious about the Fat Girl Rules. Ellie implies that they are written by society at large which reminded me of other “rules”. Other authors have written about who gets to decide which girls are pretty or how skinny is too skinny or what makes you nerdy… These are such important issues to have young readers think about and this verse novel is just the right size to encourage reading. Ellie’s silent question, “Does everybody make somebody feel like a nobody?” can stop being rhetorical in a classroom conversation.

  12. I agree, Mr. Kim, about some of the characterization, particularly the mother and brother. THe book is phenomenal in presentation and exploration of theme, and I even nominated it during the third nomination period. THere’s something very special about this story. I do wish that characterization had been more well rounded in places, but there is no arguing that the characters stand out and are hard to forget. Perhaps FIpps’s intention was to focus primarily on Ellie’s development and growth. IN that focus, it was necessary for her to confront her mother and brother. To maintain realistic continuity, perhaps Fippps did not want to make them change very obviously. WHile I don’t think the relationship between Ellie and her mother was resolved, there is room for hope that some healing will occur. As for the brother, I would have liked more scenes between Ellie and him as he seemed rather flat. I do think the characters were well-defined and vivid. My favorite, besides Ellie’s dad and her therapis, was her friend who moved away.

  13. Megan Howes says

    I did just read this a second time, and I really love that Fipps put this out in the world to reach the kids that are being bullied. Ellie’s interactions with her therapist were wonderful and great to read. I also think Fipp’s verse is beautiful, but I do wish the characterizations were more well-rounded, even in Ellie’s case. It bothered me that Ellie’s whole identity throughout the book was the fat kid, in basically every aspect of her life. What she did everyday and most of her interactions with people were tied into being the fat kid. I do know that kids are going through cruel bullying like this and may have the same thought patterns as Ellie does, but I’m wondering if in some cases this may be more triggering than helpful for some kids. I just wish her story was handled a little bit better than just showing her whole life as a collection of triggering, bullying moments.I do think that because of Fipp’s choice to include so much of this abusive language, the book was very didactic, almost to the point where I was thinking, “yes, I know the point of this book already, okay…the same message was said ten pages ago.” I do think it’s a very good book in a lot of ways, but this was one aspect that stuck in my head for most of the novel.

  14. Louie Lauer says

    This book really made an impression on me this summer when I first read it. As someone who has struggled with weight-related issues most of life, I found that reading this was pretty cathartic. Even as an adult reader I found her experiences completely relatable. And although it certainly about the bullying, I thought the most important theme was regarding society’s “rules” as a whole towards people who are considered as overweight. It impacts almost every part of daily life and can be all-consuming as, as it was for Ellie. This theme takes center stage and certainly drives the plot, but I did not feel that it was overly didactic. In stories that are didactic, the story suffers at the hand of the plot, and I didn’t feel like that happened here. Great story and really powerful message that is important for young readers.

  15. This may seem like a tangent but I want to mention how pleased I was that part of Ellie’s unique and realistic personhood was that she was Jewish on her father’s side, and that while the Jewish content was minimal, it was shown as a positive element in Ellie’s life. I work in Judaica librarianship and I’m always glad to see casual representation that shows how Jews are multifaceted fully-integrated members of society.

  16. Christy Brennan says

    This book was certainly one of my favorites of 2021. To echo what others have said, I appreciated the realistic portrayal of therapy and the journey Ellie takes with her therapist. I also found the portrayal of the bullying Ellie receives from her mother to be realistic and heartbreaking. Though I’m typically not drawn to the novel in verse format, I think it was an excellent choice made by the author. The lyrical structure allows for a wide range of emotions to be explored. Ellie is a well-developed character, and one that I was rooting for throughout the entire story. Powerful message and a truly great story. This is a book I would have loved to have had as a kid.

  17. Tamara DePasquale says

    I’m posting late as I chose to reread this title before responding to all the great comments on this thread. I will state up front that I believe this book to be a Newbery Contender. I will state why and try to address some of the questions raised from previous posts.
    I would consider “Starfish” distinguished for the following reasons:

    • The writing is truly extraordinary. The novel-in-verse is the perfect choice for Ellie’s story. She is a poet herself and shares her favorite free verse novels with the librarian. It feels totally organic for her to use this format. She is a lover of words, and her made-up words are spot on. “Starfishing,” “Snarlcasm,” “Katnissing,” and “Smowning” are just a few that come to mind that clearly sum up the action or emotion that Ellie is trying to convey. There is vivid imagery here that also lends clarity to the situations that Ellie finds herself in. My favorite is the description of “Life on a Teeter-Totter.” While life is full of ups and downs, we can easily remember how sudden and how much it hurts when someone jumps off the teeter-totter. It’s effortless to equate that unexpected hurt to Ellie’s mother and her gut-wrenching abuse. Those “fear-filled balloons” that make it hard to breathe was another gem. I also found myself savoring and highlighting (my copy) passages that need to be repeated and quoted. “Sometimes shock breaks all the words out of you like candy from a piñata.” Stephanie quotes Ellie: “Does everybody make somebody feel like a nobody?” “We. You can pack a powerful punch in a two-letter word.” Or how about “An oyster can turn something irritating into a rare and beautiful pearl. People can do that, too.” There are so many more nuggets of wisdom here. Lastly, I truly enjoyed the frequent “punches” at the end of each section. It mirrored the accumulating weight of each hurtful word or action Ellie experienced.

    • As for delineation of character, Ellie’s character is so well-drawn. Her voice is honest, raw, and believable. You feel her pain, picture her size, and hear her thoughts. We are experiencing such a front row, personal accounting of what it is to be Ellie. When we first meet her she has no voice and demonstrates no self-love. The work she has accomplished with her therapist is perfectly paced and realized. As for the secondary characters not being fully developed, I don’t believe that is necessary here. It’s Ellie’s story- her interpretation of the people who impact her everyday life. I often felt like I was reading her diary.

    • As for setting, I saw her life as the setting. That is where she lived and it was so well developed. From school and home to the therapist’s office to the pool, each place had its own vivid description. For lack of a better description, the setting was “Ellie’s fat girl world,” and once again we were in it with her. I struggled a bit with those who questioned Ellie’s abuse. Why is it so difficult to accept this? We don’t ever say a mother wouldn’t do that when it’s physical abuse. We know it happens.

    • As for “didactic intent” I never once came out of the story feeling that someone else’s voice was coming through. Because Ellie’s voice was so strong, I never felt the author’s presence. What was stated in the Author’s Note is outside of the text. For me, it felt like the sources nonfiction authors include to support the text. We learn that Lisa Fipps experienced a “version” of all that Ellie experienced. Why do we question that?

    • Everyone has touched on the themes. I support all of the comments on this topic. So well done.

    This is already too long here, and I apologize. I just see Starfish meeting so much of the Newbery criteria and succeeding while telling a story from a perspective that is so important to hear and understand.

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