• Shane Arbuthnott
  • Nancy Paulsen Books (Penguin Random House), 2021

Starfish is a middle-grade verse novel about Ellie, a girl with a big problem. Because of her weight, many people feel Ellie is fair game for teasing, ridiculing, and bullying. Yet Ellie has true friends who love her and care about her no matter how she looks. Are loyal friendships enough to get a girl through a mean, fat-shaming world?

I LOVED this novel. Everything about it is thoughtful, careful, and kind — which is to say, it walks its talk. Ellie is a poet, a lover of words and music. She is also a girl with finely tuned “fatdar”: her awareness of people all too willing to remind her how to manage herself: “No making waves. / You don’t deserve / to be seen or heard / to take up room, / to be noticed. / Make yourself small.” The novel’s verse is finely balanced; even readers who don’t normally enjoy verse novels shouldn’t mind this one, and readers who prefer verse novels will love the poetic flourishes here.

Ellie is unquestionably the star of this novel. The plot is a relationship-based growth arc. Ellie is surrounded by friends and bullies, and her task is to affirm “I’m not a whale. / I’m Ellie” — no small feat when her bullies include her own family members. But Ellie is bright, caring, determined, and fabulous; she refuses to follow the conform-lose-weight-and-be-ordinary path. With the help of her friends and a compassionate therapist, she will find her own way. I was cheering for Ellie on every page, even while I was crying for the cruelty she experiences. We need more starfish in this world. We need more Ellies.

Without question, Starfish is one of the best middle-grade books I’ve read this year. I was utterly overwhelmed by how beautifully told the story is — and by how badly needed books like this are. Brava, Lisa Fipps, for writing this gorgeous book.