Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Starfish - Lisa Fipps

Summary:
Ever since she wore a whale swimsuit and madea  big splash at her fifth birthday party, Ellie's been bullied about her weight.  To cope, she tries to live by her list of Fat Girl Rules, which are all about not standing out.  And she's found a haven in her swimming pool, where she feels weightless in a fat-obsessed world.  In the water, she can stretch out like a starfish and take up all the space she wants.  

Ellie finds an ally in her new neighbor Catalina -- a girl who refreshingly doesn't judge -- and in her new therapist, a woman who knows how to laugh at the right things.  With these good people buoying Ellie up, it's a lot easier to face the bullies and starfish in real life -- by unapologetically being her own fabulous self.  

Lisa Fipps poignant, inspiring debut novel confronts fat-shaming and its effects head-on, and while speak to anyone who's been made to feel "less than." Readers will cheer for Ellie as she realizes her own worth and begins to move forward into a hopeful, confident future.

(Summary from book flap - Image from amazon.com)

My Review:  
  • If you're fat, there are things you can't have.
  • When you hear laughter, someone's laughing at you
  • You don't deserve to be seen or heard, to take up room, to be noticed. 
  • Make yourself small.  
These are just a few of many 'Fat Girl Rules,' eleven-year old Ellie has scribbled in her diary since her fifth birthday party -- the day her sister called her a 'whale' in front of everyone. Ellie isn't bothered by her size, but she hates what others have to say about it. She's been bullied mercilessly by kids at school, random strangers around town, and even in her own home, where her size-obsessed mother and resentful siblings are critical at every opportunity. Ellie hides out in her school library (librarians are awesome!) and finds solace in the support of a few good friends, her well-meaning father, and an incredibly intuitive therapist.  With their help and her own hard work, Ellie realizes her own worth and learns to stand up to the bullies without tearing others down.  

In Starfish, author Lisa Fipps uses free verse poetry to touch on profound societal issues with  astounding brevity and a compelling grace.  I loved the dedication of the book, which reads: 
To every kid who's ever been told, "You'd be so pretty or handsome, if... " You ARE beautiful.  Now.  Just as you are.  You deserve to be seen, to be heard, to take up room, to be noticed.  So when the world tries to make you feel small, starfish! 
Indeed, that quote effectively sums up my favorite part of this book, the main message that, regardless of our size, ethnicity, or income level, we each have immense personal worth.  Through Ellie's story, the author introduces a concept I instantly loved -- starfishing.   In the pool, Ellie loves to spread her arms and legs wide like a starfish, taking up as much space as she wants and floating weightless in a world that buoys her up.  Yet in life, she tends to make herself small to try to please those who resent her for her size and shape.  As the story progresses, Ellie learns how to 'starfish' by embracing her right to take up space in the world.

I love that Ellie's emotional breakthroughs often provide insight in ways that could help the reader handle their own tricky emotions and conflicts. For example, the author introduces the concept negative self-talk with Ellie's tendency to hold onto the insults that are flung her way and repeat them to herself.  Through Ellie's therapy sessions and talks with friends, the author shows the reader specific ways to combat those negative thoughts as well as other relevant truths and helpful concepts which offer wonderful opportunities for discussion.
 
While I read Starfish, I really only had one major criticism; some of the bullying that Ellie endures seemed so far-fetched, so incredibly cruel, that it felt overdone.   As I finished the book and prepared to write this review, holding tight to my main criticism, I happened to glance at the 'Author's note.'  It turns out that every single one of Ellie's encounters with bullying happened to the author herself, in one variation or another.  This is one of those *facepalm* scenarios.  All I can say is that I stand corrected, horrified, and without another significant criticism. If anything, the author's note made me realize how very necessary Starfish, and other books like it, are to the reading community.
 
Starfish has plenty to say and I'd like to share a few of my favorite quotes to give you an idea of what you can expect:
It is unknown how many students' lives
librarians have saved
by welcoming loners at lunch.
No matter what others say or do,
embrace what makes you, you.
Stereotypes stink.
They give people an excuse to
hate people who are different
instead of taking the time
to get to know them.
Whatever someone did is
a reflection of them.
not you.
Spend your energy focusing on
what and who makes
you happy,
instead of focusing on the fools
who don't like you
--for whatever reason.
It would be great if people realized that
we're all different, in all kinds of ways,
and different is okay.

As you can see, Starfish is full of sage advice.  Much of that advice, while directed at Ellie, is perfect for growing readers of all shapes and sizes.  To paraphrase:  Words do matter.  Accept and love others as they are, regardless of what makes them different. Don't hide -- be your amazing self.  There's room for each of us to 'starfish.'  These messages are both vital and validating for tweens or young adults who have ever been bullied or felt 'less-than' because they skew differently than the status quo.  For those who aren't the target of bullying, Starfish offers a new perspective and a lesson in compassion.  I'd recommend it to anyone who has been bullied, knows someone who has been bullied, knows a bully, is a bully, or anyone who wants to generate meaningful conversation in a classroom or book club.  So....pretty much, everyone.  

My Rating: 4.25 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  This story contains numerous instances of fat-shaming/bullying (always portrayed in a negative light).  While the resulting storyline might be cathartic, the instances of bullying might be triggering for some.  Other than that, you're all clear. 

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