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Middle Grade Book Review – Starfish

STARFISH
Written by Lisa Fipps
(Nancy Paulsen Books; $17.99, Ages 10 and up)

 

 

Starred Reviews – Booklist, Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, and School Library Journal

 

I soaked up every last word of Starfish, the Printz Honor-winning debut by Lisa Fipps, and could easily dive back in and read it all over again because I felt such a strong connection with the main character, Ellie. This moving middle-grade novel told in verse takes us inside Ellie’s head as she navigates life at school and at home where she is not only bullied by classmates for being overweight but by her mother as well. 

Early on readers learn that Ellie lives by her Fat Girl Rules (e.g. Make yourself small; If you’re fat, there are things you can’t have), finding refuge in her pool at home “starfishing” as she spreads out freely claiming her space. She also finds comfort in the company of her BFF, Viv, who moves away, but remains an ally from afar. Ellie’s father is a psychiatrist, compassionate and loving. On the other hand, Ellie’s mother is a writer whose harsh “words gut me like a fish.” She is always after Ellie to diet, and presses her to consider bariatric surgery, even going so far as to take her to doctors for evaluation. I ached along with Ellie as her mom mistreated her by constantly focusing on the bad rather than loving the good. Home should be a safe place for Ellie but it isn’t. It’s a constant reminder of how she is not meeting expectations between her demanding mother, her insulting older brother, and her non-supportive older sister who dubbed Ellie “Splash” at her fifth birthday party following a cannonballing incident. Tensions spill over into everything Ellie does.

With Viv gone, Ellie and her neighbor Catalina become fast friends with Catalina’s parents and siblings offering her the kind of family life and acceptance she wishes she had at home. A therapist Ellie begins to see, referred to as Doc in the book, provides the kind of insight and strategies Ellie can use to approach the bullies who think nothing of fat-shaming this bright, beautiful adolescent. Doc helps Ellie learn to appreciate herself and her gifts, reminding her that “No matter what you weigh, you deserve for people to treat you like a human being with feelings.” This sentiment will resonate with many young readers who can use so much of what Fipps writes as a reassuring resource for any bullying and self-doubt they may be experiencing.

The intimacy of this book comes from the verse and Ellie’s powerful voice. It’s as if we’re living each experience with her and cheering for her as she takes on the bullies and turns the tables on them without having to compromise by losing a single pound. Fipps drives home the point that bullies are the ones with the issues, not those being picked on. She shows how kids, whether big or small, tall or short, can embrace their uniqueness and love themselves for who they truly are not just how they appear. It’s no surprise how much praise this novel received. I hope you’ll share it with kids you know so they can walk in Ellie’s shoes and understand what size-based discrimination feels like and how to be a part of the change needed.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

Link to Teachers Guide here.

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Swing, a Novel-in-Verse by Kwame Alexander with Mary Rand Hess

SWING
Written by Kwame Alexander
with Mary Rand Hess

(Blink YA Books; $18.99, Ages 14-18) 

 

Swing by Kwame Alexander and Mary Rand Hess book cover

 

 

Starred Reviews – Kirkus, School Library Journal 

Kwame Alexander’s Newbery Award-winning novel, The Crossover, used basketball as the backdrop for the story. His new book, written with Mary Rand Hess, is a novel-in-verse called Swing with a prologue beginning:

We were halfway through

junior year.

Rounding the bases.

About to score

it’s a good bet that the title refers to baseball.However, Hess and Alexander also collaborated on the 2017 novel Solo about rock and roll, and it turns out that Swingis as much about swinging the beat as swinging the bat. Most of all, though, it’s about putting yourself out there and embracing life.

The book opens as narrator Noah and his best friend Walt (AKA “Swing”) have again failed to make their high school baseball team. Noah wants to give up, lamenting:

But the truth is

we suck.

Our baseball dream

is a nightmare.

It haunts me.

Noah defines himself by what he can’t do. He can’t play baseball, and he can’t tell his longtime crush, Sam, how he feels about her. With Walt’s encouragement, Noah tries writing poetry for her, but it’s not very — well, see for yourself:

I want you

to be my symphony

Your legs

two piccolo trumpets

blazing through

the air.

Even Walt agrees the poem is not good enough to give to Sam, but when Noah buys a second-hand Louis Vuitton Keepall as a birthday gift for his mom, he finds old love letters stashed in the lining that inspire him to try again.

Tonight, I’m ready

To tear courage

Out of the book of dares

And make it mine.

The love letters give him a scaffold for creating art worth sharing. Noah uses them to make blackout poetry — he blacks out some words so that the ones that remain legible form a new poem — and then adds original graphic elements with his pen. The resulting mixed media art stands out, even in this book composed entirely of poems. They make me curious; I have to figure out which letter Noah uses for which piece. They make me want to try writing blackout poetry myself, and they make Noah more confident, able to express himself and impress the girl he loves.

As wonderful as Noah’s art is, my favorite creation in this book is, simply, Walt. I want to reread Swingto spend more time with him. Noah describes him and his quirks like this:

My best friend

Walt Disney Jones

is obsessed with jazz,

baseball,

dead famous people,

and finding cool,

if it’s the last thing

we ever do.

But Walt’s a

self-proclaimed expert

on how to

never give up

until you win.

When it comes to “finding cool,” especially with regard to girls, Walt relies on his older cousin Floyd and a podcast called The Woohoo Woman. He won’t give up, whether he’s practicing baseball or finding a date for prom. He even gets a tattoo inspired by Tupac Shakur’s acronym THUG LIFE. Walt’s tattoo says HUG LIFE, exhorting everyone who sees it to embrace the world, and all its people and opportunities, wholeheartedly.

Noah’s quest to win Sam over from her boyfriend takes flight after Noah’s parents go on a trip, leaving him home alone for a few weeks. Noah’s grandmother is supposed to supervise him but doesn’t believe it’s necessary. Walt, on the other hand, moves right in, believing Noah absolutely needs supervision if he’s going to win Sam’s heart. Walt anonymously sends Sam one of Noah’s poems, but it’s still up to Noah to decide how and when to reveal himself. Will he ever convince Sam to promote him out of the friend zone?

Swing is most of all a coming-of-age story, but there is a mystery in the background throughout. People find American flags left on lawns, stuck on windshields, and painted on freeway exit signs, and the town debates whether the flags represent a show of patriotism or a sinister warning.

no one can agree

on why the flags are here,

who’s planting them,

and whether or not

we should be

happy or offended

that they’re growing

like dandelions.

The flag mystery leads a fairly light story into heavier territory. I believe in building empathy and understanding through books about difficult topics; however, in Swing, the social justice issues are not well developed. Because of this, I felt unprepared for a tragedy (caused by police using excessive force) at the end of the book, and I think younger, sensitive readers in particular may have the same experience. Most of us dislike spoilers, but with Swing I think it’s fair to provide readers with a little warning before reading and a lot of opportunities for discussion afterward. In that context, I recommend Swing to readers fourteen and up as both a funny coming-of-age buddy story and a serious vehicle for discussing the people we as a society forget, fear, or abuse.

  • Review by Mary Malhotra

 

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