Starfish: Take Up the Space You Deserve

by | Feb 26, 2022

“Starfish” is a novel in verse about a young girl, Ellie, who is bullied about her weight. The story, by Lisa Fipps, shows Ellie’s journey as she learns both that she deserves to be treated with love and respect and also how to push back and protect herself against the bullying.

Fipps tells us (in the afterword) that it was editor Nancy Paulsen who suggested “Starfish” should be middle grade, rather than a YA story, because it is in middle grade where kids begin to get bullied for being overweight. I’m glad Fipps agreed, because “Starfish” gives young readers both courage and tools to push back.

Ellie feels happiest, weightless, in her pool and she spends a lot of time there. She has several allies, including her father and her best friend, Viv. But as the story opens, Viv is moving from Texas to Indiana. It also appears that her father is buckling under pressure from Ellie’s mom to “fix” Ellie, with another diet or, even worse, bariatric surgery.

Instead, Ellie’s father takes her to a therapist, but a therapist who sees Ellie for who she is and doesn’t focus at all on her weight. It’s fun to see Dr. Woods help Ellie sort out her feelings and show her that she deserves to be treated with kindness.

Dr. Woods helps Ellie find ways to stand up to the bullies. I was gratified that Fipps showed us that Ellie’s first efforts leave her feeling bad about herself, because she used the same name-calling tactics of her tormentors. It can be hard to effectively stand up for yourself, and we don’t always get to see how hard it can be to do so. But with practice, and having internalized her own self-worth, Ellie shows us how.

The friendship of Catalina and her family, who move in next door, also helps. Catalina is Ellie’s age but goes to a different school. Her entire family accept and embrace Ellie immediately and never once make a comment about her size. This positive model of family helps Ellie understand how toxic her own family situation is.

Catalina might be my favorite character. She first shows up by bouncing on a trampoline on her side of the fence and calling over the fence because she loves the music Ellie and Viv are playing. A very funny scene! I haven’t got space to describe a scene at the pool near the end with Ellie and Catalina, but it says everything good about Catalina.

But even with good friends and other allies, it is shocking how Ellie is treated in public. Complete strangers feel like they can make comments about her size in the cruelest ways. It is clear, given how Fipps writes these scenes, that much of Ellie’s experiences comes from Fipps’s own early life. The deepest wound is caused by Ellie’s own mother, who first put Ellie on a diet when she was four years old!  All her life her own mother has made Ellie feel less than, and unloved. Heartbreaking. The reader cheers as Ellie confronts her mother in the safety of Dr. Woods’s office and hands the “problem” to her mother by saying, essentially, I’m not broken, so stop trying to fix me.

Ellie is strong and a very likeable character. She attracts many allies, including the school librarian and her English teacher, she is a strong student and an outstanding writer, we know she will prevail.

Starfish is a great title for this book, because it refers to the act of stretching your arms and legs out as far and wide as they will go, taking up as much space as you need. It’s a real act of courage for Ellie to do this and we cheer her every step of the way.

If you are as interested as I was to learn more about Fipps you can start with her outstanding website:

This review first appeared in the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette

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