Starfish by Lisa Fipps

The book cover depicts a girl in a peach bathing suit with lavender, white, and gold flowers and greenery, floating on her back against a blue watery background, as if in a swimming pool. Her arms and legs are outstretched in a formation resembling the starfish of the title.

by Carmen J.

I know you are going to find this hard to believe, but our society isn’t kind to people that are overweight. People like me. While I’m over here living my best life and admiring the body positive messages from the Lizzos and Ashley Grahams of the world, there is still much work to do when it comes to fat acceptance and body shaming.

On this year’s Summer Reading list (coming soon!), there is a gem of a book called Starfish. It highlights this message in bright lights. The debut novel by Lisa Fipps centers around Ellie, an 11-year-old, who is bullied for her weight. Not just by her classmates but also by her own family. From her sister, who nicknamed her Splash for her body’s impact when she swims, to her so-called well-intentioned mother researching bariatric surgery and dieting articles, Ellie is sent the consistent message that she doesn’t fit in. She doesn’t fit in with her peers; she doesn’t fit in the right clothes. 

In the water, Ellie is weighless and free – free of societal pressures, free of side eyes and judgment. There are no what-ifs or “if you only lost weight” or “your face is so pretty,” etc. 

Yet, it’s not all doom and gloom for Ellie. She finds refuge and support in her new therapist and her father, who advocates for her, even when advocacy leads to arguments with Ellie’s mom. Her new neighbor, Catalina, sees Ellie for her true self and beyond her physical appearance.

What sets this beautiful story apart from other similarly told stories is that the happy ending isn’t one where the main character finally loses weight and suddenly becomes liked by all. (As if a smaller-sized body guaranteed a happier life or popularity, which unfortunately is never guaranteed.) I won’t spoil the story for you, but I think you’ll find in Starfish an out-sized, hearty message with positive rippling effects on our youth.

Carmen J. is a teen instructor at HCLS East Columbia. Among her favorite things are great books, all things 80s, shamelessly watching The Bachelor, gardening, and drinking anything that tastes like coffee.

Fifteen Hundred Miles from the Sun by Jonny Garza Villa

The book cover shows a young man on the left, holding a soccer ball behind a net and looking at his cell phone, and a young man on the right in a maroon and white hoodie with his hands in his pockets. Between them is an isolated image of two hands clasping. There is a pink and peach-colored bright but cloudy sky in the background, and the title lettering is in teal green.

By Sahana C.

TW: Parental abuse & abandonment, homophobia & homophobic slurs, bullying 

In Fifteen Hundred Miles from the Sun, Julián Luna is determined to make the most of his senior year of high school. He has plans on how he’ll make that happen: spending as much time as possible with his best friends, playing soccer, graduating, getting into UCLA, and, oh – making sure no one finds out that he’s gay. Especially not his father. But despite this secret he’s keeping, he manages to make the most of things, spending time with his tight-knit friend group. Until, of course, one day, just scrolling through Twitter, he sees pictures of a boy. Immediately, there’s a connection, and when they start texting and speaking more, Julián finds himself falling for the boy, Mat. The issue, then? Well, other than the fact that Julián isn’t out, he’s also in Corpus Christi, Texas, and Mat lives in Los Angeles. Despite the distance, the two boys start learning about each other, falling for each other, and hoping for a future together. But time, distance, and unplanned coming-outs get in the way.  

Garza Villa is honest about hardship from the start of the book, even writing in the dedication ““To all the queer brown boys still waiting for their chance to bloom. Quisieron enterrarnos, pero no sabían que éramos semillas.” They want to bury us, but they don’t know that we are seeds. That thread flows through the novel, including candid conversations about machismo in Latinx culture, religion’s intersection with homophobia, and conversations about bullying. And yet, despite the list of trigger warnings at the top of this review, the novel is intentionally not centering trauma in Julián’s life. Every moment of pain is followed by immediate love, support, and care. Garza Villa takes pains to ensure that joy is the central theme around which the rest of the story is built; of course Julián faces hardship, but he is never truly alone in how he responds to those traumatic moments. The idea presented in the dedication, “we are seeds”, is exactly how Julián responds to all the hardships in his life. He was buried deep, and with careful nurture, love, and support from his family and friends, he manages to bloom into something beautiful and loving, breaking the cycle of abuse.  

This book was wonderfully illustrative. I lost myself in Julián’s friend group, found myself falling in love with Mat along with Julián, and waiting with bated breath for college acceptance letters. But most significantly, I was swept up in a celebration of culture, cuisine, friendship, and queer joy. There is real heart here; Garza Villa paints an honest picture of the ways falling in love and doing long distance just as easily as he manages to bring to life all of the different characters that make up Julián’s friend group, who each are so vivacious and full of life without becoming caricatures.  

This book is perfect for any teens looking to find themselves, or adults who know that the blooming never stops. That if we are seeds, we will continue to grow, season after season.

Sahana is an Instructor and Research Specialist at the Savage Branch. She enjoys adding books to her “want to read” list despite having a mountain of books waiting for her already.