TNCS Student Book Review: An Immersed First!

At The New Century School, language-learning informs much of the spirit of the academic program . . . and English Language Arts is a core subject!

In the beginning of October, ELA teacher Gab Sussman assigned her middle school students the book Starfish by Lisa Fipps. Written in free verse, Starfish recounts the trials and tribulations (and triumphs!) of an 11-year-old girl bullied because of her weight. This theme tied in perfectly with the Q1 emphasis on stomping out bullying (see this post for more).

Ms. Sussman got a lot of mileage out of Starfish, weaving in lessons on metaphors, puns, proverbs, and idioms, and asking students to mark any use of such figurative language. After about a month, students were asked to complete a culminating book project comprising three components: a video assignment, a comic design, and a book review essay. “Would Immersed like to feature a stand-out book review,” asked Ms. Sussman? “Spotlight a TNCS student’s literary efforts? Yes, please!” answered Immersed, and so, without further ado, we give you . . .

A Book Review of Starfish by Lisa Fipps: By Schonbek Glazer

Lisa Fipps, the author of Starfish, grew up in a small city named Kokomo, located in Indiana. Lisa Fipps is an award-winning former journalist who graduated from Indiana’s Ball State University. She loves collecting rocks. She stated, “Everywhere I go, I find an interesting one and then bring it home to put in jars with all the others to remind myself of my travels.” Her favorite rock in her collection is a white rock from Nice, France.

The main character, Ellie, is what people may call “fat,” and she has been bullied about it. She is primarily bullied by her classmates Kortnee, Marrisa, as well as her brother Liam and her mother. The next obstacle she encounters is when her next-door neighbor/”bestie,” Viv, moves away to Indiana. She’s heartbroken, but a new neighbor named Catalina moves in. In the beginning, Ellie is skeptical of Catalina but then learns that she is an ally and doesn’t make fun of her. They both go on adventures together and overcome obstacles, she realizes that she can trust Catalina, and she makes Ellie feel better. Ellie spends most of her time in her house’s swimming pool where she feels “weightless”. Ellie then gets a therapist who she likes, she learns from her that she can let her emotions go and stick up for herself, and to love herself even more. Ellie knows that she and her body are beautiful and she stands up to her bullies.

Two themes in this book are self-love and courage. There are many aspects of self-love in the book. An example is on page 171 when she takes off all the articles her mother has hung up on the refrigerator about weight-loss and replaces them with very specific articles that are the opposite of what her mother thinks. Some titles include, “Studies show a family’s comments about an overweight child add to a negative self-image,” and “Studies show it’s not just kids and teachers at school who make fun of overweight kids; parents also bully them.” These headlines show that Ellie loves herself and worries about herself, and doesn’t agree with what her mom thinks. She tries to make the articles visible for her mother to see. She isn’t crying or anything, just sticking up for herself. An example of an act of courage is on page 226 where Ellie stands up to her bullies, Marisa and Kortnee, because they have held her dog hostage and will only give it back if Ellie eats a whale cake on camera. Ellie ends up tossing the cake at the bullies and steps up to them. Fipps writes, “I’m defending myself, I close in on Marissa. I said, ‘Give me my dog!’” This shows that she stood up against her bullies and it takes a lot of courage to do that.

The purpose of Starfish is to stand up for yourself, have self-respect, being fat is not bad, be proud of who you are, and many other things. Fipps does a lot by sharing essential details and writes from Ellie’s point-of-view. The reader feels like they are in her shoes. I think Fipps was trying to say that you never know how other people feel. She also tried to share details about herself and others suffering from fatphobia so that her readers could feel it for themselves and maybe understand a little more.

As a whole, I recommend this book to everyone. The author does an excellent job of hooking you into the book. I believe it’s a great book and has great life lessons. In my opinion, this book is for all those who like to read, who are bullied, or who don’t like their own appearance. Before you read the book, you should know that it does get shocking and a little bit sad at some parts. It demonstrates the problems we have in life but it has a valuable point of view. This also is good for people who experience fatphobia because you may be able to relate to it a lot  and have a great connection with the main character, Ellie.

Courage: A TNCS Core Value!

Although it can be no mystery why that excellent review was chosen, Ms. Sussman factored in more than just good writing, when she selected this 7th-grader’s work for special attention:

I was drawn to Schonbek’s report for many reasons. His writing is clear, honest, and it met the assignment requirements. However, the most important and poignant reason I chose to showcase his writing on Immersed is because even after only teaching him for 3 short months, I’ve seen him embody so much self-love and courage. I know that Starfish was a powerful mirror for him and he showed up to ELA class each day, bursting with connections, reflections, and deep insights. Thank you, Schonbek, for allowing us to read your work and celebrate you!


Want to learn more on how to avoid “fatphobia” and “fat-shaming”? After wrapping up their Starfish project, Ms. Sussman showed her students Kelli Jean Drinkwater’s Tedx Talk, “Enough with the fear of fat.” “[Students] answered comprehension, analytic, and reflection questions about what they learned. Her speech contextualizes and builds upon a major theme from Starfish, fatphobia, and explains how unfortunately common and harmful this problem is in our society. Many students shared how inspired they were by her words and the work she does,” said Ms. Sussman.

Thank you, Schonbeck for your inspirational work, and thank you Ms. Sussman, for giving your middle school students a space to flourish in. Finally, thanks to you both for helping make the world a more body-positive place.