Starfish (2021) by Lisa Fipps, surprised me with beauty, heartbreak, and fat positivity in this middle grade novel written in free verse.

Ellie, 12, is the youngest of three kids of a mixed-faith psychiatrist-father and editor-mother, and is nicknamed Splash at her 5th birthday party when she does a perfect cannonball. The kids at school have never forgotten the nickname, and relentlessly bully her because she is fat. Her father loves Ellie as she is, but her mother constantly monitors what she eats and threatens bariatric surgery. Did I mention she is only 12?

Her sister essentially ignores her and her brother is one of the worst bullies. And her best friend is moving to Indiana, so she’s not looking forward to school starting without her. Ellie’s safe place is her backyard pool, where she can swim, weightless, and starfish, taking up as much space as she wants. She is initially upset when she finds out that an appointment with a therapist has been made for her, but realizes it’s a good thing as middle school spirals out of control and her mother continues to try to control Ellie’s weight.

Ellie knows “Fat Girl Rules” like “take up as little space as possible;” and “if you’re fat, there are things you can’t have;” Together with her therapist, they burn the Fat Girl Rules.

Starfish is full of anti-fat bias, including internalized anti-fat bias, and so it can be very difficult to read. But Ellie knows deep down that she doesn’t deserve the bullying from anyone, and she finds the strength to stand up for herself. She has friends and family members who support her, and so, ultimately, it’s a fat-positive message as she works to replace her internalized anti-fat bias with fat positive thoughts, and confront the bullies, including her mother..

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