By Alaina Leary
Today we’re pleased to welcome Lisa Fipps to the WNDB blog to discuss her MG novel Starfish, out March 9, 2021!
Author’s note: I use the word fat. Not chunky. Not plump. Not overweight. Not obese. Not any of the other words a lot of people use. I think fat should be a simple descriptor, like tall or brunette. It’s not. Fat is hurled as an insult. I’m working to reclaim the word and strip it of its use as a weapon.
Ellie is tired of being fat-shamed and does something about it in this poignant debut novel-in-verse.
Ever since Ellie wore a whale swimsuit and made a big splash at her fifth birthday party, she’s been bullied about her weight. To cope, she tries to live by the Fat Girl Rules–like “no making waves,” “avoid eating in public,” and “don’t move so fast that your body jiggles.” And she’s found her safe space–her swimming pool–where she feels weightless in a fat-obsessed world. In the water, she can stretch herself out like a starfish and take up all the room she wants. It’s also where she can get away from her pushy mom, who thinks criticizing Ellie’s weight will motivate her to diet. Fortunately, Ellie has allies in her dad, her therapist, and her new neighbor, Catalina, who loves Ellie for who she is. With this support buoying her, Ellie might finally be able to cast aside the Fat Girl Rules and starfish in real life–by unapologetically being her own fabulous self.
What drew me to this book immediately was how celebratory it is, but it’s not a straightforward journey for Ellie. She’s learning to combat fatphobia—including internalized fatphobia—and that’s hard. Why did you want to show that, and especially for MG readers?
In Starfish, I showed—without holding back at all—exactly how fat people, which includes kids, are treated in a fatphobia-dominated world. Ellie only has one friend, Viv, and that’s why it’s so devastating when she moves away as the story begins. That was intentional. Studies show that fat people have fewer friends because those who aren’t fat don’t want to be around them. Ellie’s initial interactions with her new next-door neighbor, Catalina, reveal just how much trauma Ellie’s endured. She expects Catalina’s being nice just to set her up for a prank. How sad is it that Ellie fears kindness and is afraid of anyone who’s nice to her? Yet it’s part of the fat person experience.
When you’re fat, you live in a constant brace-for-impact mode—always knowing the next comment, stare, or laugh is coming. It’s exhausting and soul-crushing even for adults, who are better equipped to handle the onslaught than children, especially since brains don’t fully develop until age twenty-five. Kids have to deal with fatphobia and bullying in society, in the media (including social media), at school, and, sadly, usually at home.
For as long as they’re fat, fat people are told all day, every day that fat is bad, and they’re bad for being fat. When you’re constantly bombarded by such hatred, you can’t help but internalize at least some of the fatphobia —even if you have a strong support system, which, unfortunately, most fat people don’t have. I had to show that. To not show it would have made Starfish not true to life. I know. I lived that life. To not address it also would have been a slap in the face to kids who need to know they’re not alone. They need to know that someone gets it—really gets it. Plus, readers need hope, hope that they, like Ellie, can go from internalizing fatphobia to starfishing. It’s not a straightforward journey. Everyone’s journey has twists and turns, detours, and mountains and valleys.
This book also shows Ellie seeing a therapist for the first time and working through fatphobia with a therapist. Why did you want to feature therapy heavily in the book and offer it as one option for people working through internalized oppression?
I featured therapy in Starfish for four specific reasons. First, there’s a mental health crisis in America, which has only gotten worse because of the pandemic. One reason for that is because there’s so much stigma surrounding mental illnesses.
But there’s also a stigma simply for seeking help whenever you’re just struggling with emotions. There shouldn’t be. If you break your ankle, there’s no shame in getting help so you can heal. If the world breaks you, mentally, there should be no shame in getting help so you can heal. The more literature drives home that message, the better. Second, Ellie’s dad sees the pain in her eyes from all that people say and do to her and it breaks his heart, but even as a psychiatrist, he doesn’t know how to help Ellie deal with it.
I want kids to know it’s okay if their parents don’t know how to help them deal with everything they’re going through as they grow up. Just because you’re a grownup doesn’t mean you have all the answers or that you know what to do in every situation. So, by showing Ellie’s dad connecting her with the help she needs, I’m showing that if you don’t know what to do, find someone who does. That’s an important tool to have in your life toolbox.
Third, kids don’t always open up to their parents and share what’s going on in their lives. That’s especially true when a parent or someone in the family is part of the problem. It helps to have someone you can turn to outside the family unit. Fourth, when the pain you feel is so deep and you’ve kept it all bottled up inside for so long that when you do release it, it can be messy; it helps to have a therapist to lead you through the process safely.
The plot for Starfish immediately reminded me of the powerful scene from the Hulu series Shrill, where a fat-and-proud pool party is shown. Were you inspired at all by that scene or any other media?
Starfish was inspired by my own life. A version of everything that happened to Ellie happened to me. I loved to swim as a kid. When my uncle first got a pool, I was ecstatic. I didn’t want to wait in line behind everyone taking the steps down into the water, so I cannonballed. When I surfaced, everyone was laughing at me, making jokes about emptying all the water out of the pool. I never cannonballed after that. I used the steps, easing in slowly to keep from making a splash. I also swam underwater, so there was no splashing.
As soon as I told my mom I wanted to learn how to play the piano, she said, “I’ll buy you one—after you lose the weight.” After that, I never told her anything I had my heart set on. I knew she’d dangle it like a carrot on a stick in front of me, punishment for being fat disguised as motivation to lose weight. I never did learn how to play the piano. The restaurant scene in Starfish where the guy coaches his little boy into walking over to Ellie to tell her she’s fat and ugly? That happened to me.
The ending was different, though. I didn’t have anyone standing up for me. And I didn’t go out to restaurants with anyone for years after that. The scene where they’re watching TV and Ellie’s mom points and laughs at the fat lady on the beach and says, “Look at that big ol’ fat thing!”—that happened. I could go on. It amazes me when people read Starfish and say it’s not true to life because things like that would never happen; people aren’t that cruel. I always want to say, “I wish.”
What have you learned from your roles in journalism and marketing at a library that you’ve applied to writing middle-grade books?
Being a journalist gave me a great ear for writing authentic dialogue and a lifetime supply of mannerisms and descriptions for characters. Journalism taught me to write cold. So many of my writer friends freak out when staring at a blank screen at the start of a new project. It doesn’t faze me. I remember my boss calling me to come to work while a siren blared outside and a TV meteorologist yelled, “Take cover! A tornado’s touching down!” I put in a twenty-four-hour-day that day. I remember once writing in between trips to the restroom because I had the stomach flu.
Those two experiences alone taught me that you write no matter what’s going on around you, and you write even when you don’t feel like it. You can’t miss a deadline. That serves me well as an author. As a director of marketing for a public library, I watch kids run—literally run—into the library because they can’t wait to check out books. Kids love reading for pleasure. The problem is, as kids get older, so many other things compete for their attention that they stop reading except for what’s required for school. Because of my marketing experiences, my goal as an author is to write children’s books that stay with them, that keep them coming back for more, so they’ll be lifelong readers.
Did you do any research for this book, and what was your favorite fact you learned?
I did a lot of research. I wanted to make sure that what was true for me was true for others who are bullied because of their weight. It is. I also did a lot of research about Mexican Americans, because of Catalina; Judaism, since Ellie’s dad is Jewish; Texas, even though I lived there for five years since that’s the main setting for the book; and child therapy techniques.
One of the things I learned is just how much of the current U.S. territory was once owned by Mexico. One map I found, with the help of a genealogy and history expert at the library, shows the land lost by Mexico between 1821 and 1853. Mexico owned Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, and Utah; it owned parts of Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, and Oklahoma. And yet, Mexican Americans are made to feel like they don’t have a right to be in the United States. That it’s not their home —when it was their home long before it was home to Americans.
If you could be on your dream panel to promote this book, what would it be about? Who are some other authors you’d love to have on it with you? (I love this question!)
I’d gather authors of some of my favorite middle-grade books to talk about how Starfish and their books show how life experiences shape you, teach the importance of empathy, and, most of all, allow us to realize we’re different and different is not only okay but also good and necessary.
These are the authors I’d want and their specific books because of the characters I find myself still thinking about and wondering how they’re doing: Linda Sue Park (A Single Shard), Padma Venkatraman (The Bridge Home), Karen Hesse (Out of the Dust), Kathryn Erskine (Mockingbird), Rita Williams-Garcia (One Crazy Summer), and Gary D. Schmidt (Okay for Now). I could name more. I’ll kick myself later for not naming others.
Do you consider yourself a plotter or a pantser? Did you follow that same routine for this book or surprise yourself?
I’m a pantser. Total pantser. Books come to me through what I call video clips in my head. The first time I get a clip from a protagonist, I know there’s a character wanting to tell their story through me. That’s the best way I know how to describe it. I’ll see a clip of a crucial scene (Ellie starfishing in the pool), a clip where I hear how a character talks that helps me with dialogue (Ellie’s dad using rodeo references in the fight with Ellie’s mom after the bariatric surgery consult), or a clip of a character’s reaction to something that happens and I pick up on their facial expressions and other cues to know how they’re feeling inside (Catalina hating how the woman looks at her and her family at the frozen custard shop).
Then I jot down questions I have about the clips, like, “What’s Ellie really want from her mom?” I keep a journal for each book I’m working on. I didn’t do that for Starfish. I ended up with notes here, there, and everywhere. I’m an organized person, so that was annoying. Yes, I’m a writer, but because of my process, I’m kinda like a film director, shuffling, editing, and piecing those mental video clips together to create a whole story. Weird, right? There’s only been one book where everything came to me as one long movie trailer, shall we say. I saw every key scene I needed to develop the story from start to finish. That’s my current work in progress.
Do you have any advice for other debut authors, particularly during a pandemic?
Writing is a solitary profession. Everything’s done by email. Some of the main social and creative outlets I had as a writer were critique sessions, going to conferences, and book launch parties. Those are all virtual because of COVID-19. In a way, that’s good. I can attend more conferences. I can meet up with writers around the globe without spending money or hours in a car or on a plane.
But there’s just something missing when you can’t swap stories and laugh together in person. When you can’t hug someone on launch day. On top of all we used to have to do every day (work, running errands), we have to deal with all that comes with life during a pandemic. I think we all got through the first few weeks thinking we’d “get back to normal” after a few months. There was this imaginary finish line we set and kept our eyes on. But now, even with the vaccine, experts say we’ll have to wear masks and social distance for a year or more. It’s emotionally exhausting. So, my advice is this: Be kind to yourself. Do what you can and let go of the rest.
What other books do you think Starfish is in conversation with? And do you have any recommendations for recently published or forthcoming books?
Starfish is about fatphobia, body positivity, and learning how to unashamedly take up your space and your place in the world. It’s also about telling a story that hasn’t been told before.
I see Starfish in conversation with these books, which I’m excited to have read or have in my to-be-read pile; some aren’t as recent as others: The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (because Ellie and Ada have hurtful mothers who do all the wrong things); Song for a Whale by Lynne Kelly (because Ellie understands what it’s like to not be heard); Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt (because the characters struggle to fit in and yet the only reason they don’t fit in is because of how others see them); and Taking Flight: From War Orphan to Star Ballerina by Michaela DePrince and Elaine Deprince (because she’s telling her story, her truth, and she is starfishing).
Lisa Fipps is a graduate of Ball State University, award-winning former journalist, current director of marketing for a public library (where she won the Sara Laughlin marketing award), and an author of middle-grade books. Starfish is her debut novel. She’s working on her next novel and several others. She currently lives in Indiana and lived in Texas.
Alaina (Lavoie) is the communications manager of We Need Diverse Books. She also teaches in the graduate department of Writing, Literature, and Publishing at Emerson College and is a book reviewer for Booklist. She received a 2017 Bookbuilders of Boston scholarship for her work in the publishing industry. Her writing has been published in New York Times, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Refinery29, Allure, Healthline, Glamour, The Oprah Magazine, and more. She currently lives in Boston with her wife and their two literary cats. Follow her @AlainasKeys on Instagram and Twitter.