50 pages 1 hour read

Lisa Fipps

Starfish

Fiction | Novel/Book in Verse | Middle Grade | Published in 2021

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

Starfish by Lisa Fipps is a 2021 middle-grade realistic novel-in-verse. Written through a series of poems, the novel follows 12-year-old Ellie Montgomery-Hofstein and her struggles against bullying, from both family and peers, because of her weight. Through Ellie’s journey, the novel explores themes of self-acceptance, social support, bullying, and standing up for yourself.

Ellie teaches herself to live by self-imposed “Fat Girl Rules,” metaphorically shrinking herself to avoid drawing attention to herself. She is bullied at school by her classmates, and at home by her mother, who disregards Ellie’s feelings and sees her weight as a problem to be relentlessly attacked. With the help of her new friend, Catalina, and her therapist Dr. Wood, Ellie learns to embrace her own worth as a person and use her words to stand up to bullies without becoming one herself.

This guide is based on the Penguin Random House 2021 edition.

Content Warning: Starfish discusses emotional and food-related abuse as well as fat-shaming. It includes an instance of racism.

Plot Summary

Twelve-year-old Ellie Montgomery-Hofstein has endured bullying about her weight ever since she was five, when she canon-balled into her family’s backyard pool and splashed the other swimmers, earning her the nickname “Splash.” Since then, Ellie’s classmates have taunted and ostracized her. At home, Ellie’s Mom enforces harsh diets and pins weight loss articles on the fridge to motivate Ellie to lose weight. Ellie’s older brother Liam treats her with contempt, while her older sister Anaïs looks on with pity. Ellie’s only support is Dad, who loves her for who she is and doesn’t treat her weight as a problem to be solved. To cope, Ellie lives by self-imposed “Fat Girl Rules.” Each rule reinforces the idea that Ellie doesn’t deserve to take up space in the world. Her only refuges are her backyard swimming pool, where she feels weightless and free, and her poetry, through which she can express herself without inhibitions.

Ellie’s best friend Viv moves away before the start of the new school year, and a girl about Ellie’s age moves in next door. Accustomed to being bullied, Ellie is initially suspicious of her new neighbor Catalina, but the girls become fast friends, bonding over their shared love of words and music as well as their shared experience of being excluded at school. The girls’ friendship develops throughout the novel and becomes a transformative source of support for Ellie.

At the behest of her parents, Ellie reluctantly sees a therapist, Dr. Wood. Ellie views her relationship with Dr. Wood as a power struggle and resists giving up any information about herself during their first session. She visits a plus-size boutique for the first time and realizes she doesn’t always have to shape herself to fit the world; there are places Ellie can belong just as she is. Ellie begins to embrace the idea of allowing herself to take up space, likening herself to a starfish that stretches its limbs out to take up all the space it needs.

Dr. Wood slowly earns Ellie’s trust and helps her realize the impact others’ words have on her. Mom’s words in particular have affected Ellie’s negative self-image. Ellie learns to release her pain by expressing it through art or writing. She finds acceptance within Catalina’s family, who all treat Ellie with respect, kindness, and affection. Through Catalina, Ellie realizes that her weight isn’t a problem—it’s the thinking of people like Mom who use her weight as justification for treating her poorly.

Mom allows abuse and hate against Ellie because of Ellie’s weight. When Ellie is cruelly insulted at a restaurant, Dad demands an apology from the offender, but Mom feels humiliated and drags the family from the restaurant. Strangers treat Ellie disrespectfully even during a family vacation to Niagara Falls, an event that leaves her feeling dehumanized. Dr. Wood helps Ellie process the experience and verbalize its impact on her. With Dr. Wood’s guidance, Ellie learns to use her words to assert her right to be treated respectfully. Ellie confronts one of her bullies at school and realizes she can use her voice to reclaim power from her abusers.

Ellie’s classmates humiliate her with a cruel prank. While Dad is livid about the incident, Mom believes the bullying would stop if Ellie lost weight. Ellie seeks support from Catalina and Anaïs, the latter having promised to treat Ellie better after recognizing the extent of her abuse.

The friendship between Ellie and Catalina grows, and Ellie trusts Catalina with sensitive secrets, such as why she doesn’t have a mirror in her room: Mom taught Ellie to hate her appearance at a young age, and she hasn’t been able to tolerate her own reflection ever since. Catalina gifts Ellie a mirror for Hanukkah, helping Ellie recognize her beauty and move toward self-acceptance. Similarly, Dr. Wood helps Ellie recognize the compassion she has for others and how she can use it as a force for good. With Catalina and Dr. Wood’s support, Ellie finds the strength to erase her Fat Girl Rules.

Bullies from school hold Ellie’s dog, Gigi, for ransom and refuse to return her unless she performs a humiliating act on video. Bolstered by the presence of Catalina, Anaïs, and Catalina’s siblings, Ellie stands up to the bullies and reclaims her dog. Mom goes behind Dad’s back and sneaks Ellie into a consultation for bariatric surgery, but Ellie stands up for herself and leaves the appointment. Ellie begins advocating for herself in other ways, such as standing up to Mom and rejecting contemptuous treatment from doctors. With Dr. Wood’s support, Ellie directly confronts Mom about her abuse. Finally content with herself and secure in her worth, Ellie embraces her right to take up space, just like a starfish.

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