Review posted May 16, 2021.
Nancy Paulsen Books (Penguin Random House), 2021. 244 pages.
Review written May 15, 2021, from a library book
2021 Sonderbooks Standout:
#5 Children's Fiction
Starfish is a novel in verse about a middle school girl named Ellie who’s fat.
She’s mercilessly bullied – by people at school, but more heartbreakingly, by her own mother and brother. Her mother first put her on a diet when she was four years old, and people at school have called her a whale or “Splash” ever since her fifth birthday party when she did a grand cannonball in the pool.
Now Ellie only swims by herself or with her best friend Viv. Except just before school starts, Viv moves to a different part of the country. But a new girl, Catalina, has moved in next door, and even though she’s thin, she knows how to be a friend.
But Catalina’s going to a different school from Ellie, so Ellie still has to face the same bullies on her own. They duck when she goes by in the hall as if there’s no room for her to pass, and do things much worse when no teacher is looking. At home, Ellie’s Mom even goes through her trash to make sure she’s not eating snacks. She won’t buy Ellie new clothes for school, because she wants Ellie to be motivated to lose weight. Mom even arranges an appointment with a doctor who wants her to consider surgery.
And Ellie hates it that she is a source of conflict between her parents. Dad has promised her that he will never allow surgery, so Mom made that appointment behind his back. When both parents arrange for Ellie to see a therapist, she feels betrayed.
But the therapist turns out to help Ellie think of ways to cope, to be able to speak up for herself, take up space, and stop hiding her feelings.
At home, in the pool, still early in the book, I like the place where Ellie decides to be a starfish:
As I float,
I spread out my arms
and my legs.
I’m a starfish,
taking up all the room I want.
This is a beautiful book. Ellie deals with some horrific bullying, and it’s not handled in simplistic ways, but she does get better at handling it. And she does learn to stop apologizing for taking up space, that she is beautiful and loved as she is.
Sadly, the Author’s Note at the back begins like this:
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 when I was a child. Fat Girl Rules exist.
I hope that this lovely book will help kids see the value in every person – whether they personally are fat or thin.