Starfish by Lisa Fipps

That’s what the best books do./ They make you think/ And rethink/ how you see/ yourself,/ others,/ and the world./ Most of all/ they make you feel./ Feelings toward people/ who aren’t like you./ Feelings you didn’t know/ you had.

This is just one of the quotes that I loved from Lisa Fipps debut middle grade verse novel, Starfish, and it perfectly describes this book. Starfish is a book that I guarantee will make any reader feel some strong emotions. I don’t think anybody can be unmoved reading Lisa’s story. I have read many verse novels for middle grade and YA but Starfish is my absolute favourite.

Ever since she wore a whale swimsuit to her fifth birthday pool party, Ellie has been bullied about her weight. At school the bullies call her Splash and are constantly making fat jokes, and at home her mum is always on at her about her weight. Her mum has made her try different diets and puts articles on the fridge about weight-loss. The only one in her family who seems to accept her and show her any love is her dad. Her best friend, Viv, has always been there for her, but now she’s moving away. At first, Ellie doesn’t trust the new girl who has moved in next door. As she gets to know Catalina, Ellie discovers she may have a new best friend. Ellie’s parents make her see a therapist, which Ellie is not keen on. However, Ellie warms to Doc and the more they talk, the more Ellie is able to process how she feels. With the support of Doc, her dad and her friends, Ellie learns to love herself and the body she’s in.

I love Starfish so much! It is such a powerful, emotional story that is perfectly suited to the free verse format. Ellie is a character who you feel an immediate connection to and empathise with. Ellie’s story takes you on a roller-coaster of emotion, laughing one minute and then in tears the next. The bullying that Ellie faces at school is pretty horrible, but it’s the words and actions of her own mother that really make you angry and so sad for Ellie. Even a couple of days after reading the book I still can’t believe some of the things that Ellie’s mum did and said to her. I didn’t want to be a bystander and say nothing, but instead confront Ellie’s mum and tell her what she was doing was not OK.

Lisa Fipps’ writing is just so beautiful and lyrical. She captures emotions perfectly in just a few words. I found myself stopping and writing down quotes from the book so many times. I wanted to take my time with the book and savour Lisa’s words but I also needed to get to the end to find out how Ellie confronted her bullies.

There were so many passages that struck a chord with me, but this one was quite poignant, as it is Ellie talking about her school librarian, Mrs. Pochon:

She’s the first person to smile at me today/ The first to make me feel wanted./ Understood./ I blink back tears./ It’s unknown how many students’ lives librarians have saved by welcoming loners at lunch.

Starfish is now one of my favourite books and I’ll be telling everyone about it. It would be an amazing read aloud or class novel for Year 7/8. Thank you Lisa for giving us your wonderful story!

Avis and the Promise of Dragons by Heather McQuillan

Dragons are creatures of myth, but imagine if there was a dragon in your neighbourhood. This is exactly what Avis discovers when she takes a job as a pet-sitter for the local ‘witch.’ Heather McQuillan introduces us to Avis and Humbert the dragon in her latest book, Avis and the Promise of Dragons.

Avis is having a hard time at home and school. The school bully, Drake, is making her miserable and her dad and brother have changed since her mum left and shacked up with an ex-All Black. A ray of light appears in her life just when she needs it – Dr Malinda Childe. Avis dreams of working with animals and Dr Malinda offers her a job as her pet-sitter. These are no ordinary pets though. These pets are special and unusual and Avis makes a promise to keep them a secret. This isn’t the only promise that she will make over the course of a weekend and soon Avis finds herself bonded to mythical creature. A mythical creature that just happens to love chocolate. If Avis is to keep her promises she will need to shake her brother and father out of their funk because she is going to need their help.

Avis and the Promise of Dragons is a magical adventure that you want to gobble down, like a dragon with a block of chocolate. Heather takes a story of a family who have fallen apart and throws a mischievous dragon into the mix. There is lots packed into the story, from family issues and bullying to conservation and the impact of the media. Avis’ Dad is a broken man after Avis’ Mum walked out on her family to start a new life with ex-All Black Aaron Miller. He takes little notice of what is happening with his kids, instead wallowing in his self-pity. Avis’ brother Bruno hides away in his room constantly, eating rubbish food and just generally being unpleasant. Avis is the only one in the family who is showing any responsibility, but she is also bearing the brunt of Drake the bully’s torment. The pet-sitting job for Dr Malinda gives her something positive in her life. The dragon coming in to her life helps to mend her family too.

Heather will make you wish you had a dragon all of your own. I really liked Heather’s take on the dragon myth and how her little dragon evolved. This dragon may love chocolate but but he’s certainly not sweet. Humbert is a wild creature who could burn you if you don’t keep your promises. He needs more food than just chocolate and will gobble up a dove or twenty when he’s hungry.

I loved Avis and the Promise of Dragons. It would make a fantastic read aloud for Years 5/6 as it will have the kids hanging on every word.

Heather McQuillian has just been announced as the University of Otago College of Education Creative New Zealand Children’s Writer in Residence Fellow for 2021. Congratulations Heather! I look forward to reading what you create during your time in Dunedin.

Blood Moon by Lucy Cuthew

Lucy Cuthew’s new book, Blood Moon, is an amazing verse novel for teens that focuses on periods, sex and online shaming.

During Frankie’s first sexual experience with Benjamin (he of the meaty thighs) she gets her period. They both agree that it is just blood, there is no shame and that they both had fun. However, Frankie starts to doubt Benjamin’s honesty when details of their experience are spread around school. What should have been something private is now very much public. Then a graphic meme about her goes viral and Frankie starts to wonder if she is dirty and should be ashamed. Frankie’s life really gets turned upside down when the online shaming becomes vicious and terrifying. With the help of her friends, Frankie will need to stand up and show those around her that she has nothing to be ashamed of.

Blood Moon is an empowering read with real emotional punch. It’s a story about periods but it’s also about friendships, family, first sexual encounters, bullying, and social media. Lucy has written the story in verse, which I always think adds impact to the story. It feels like a more personal form of storytelling and it really works with this story. A story told in verse makes you slow down and savour the author’s words. Take this section for example:

Lucy vividly portrays the impact that period shaming, both in person and online, has on Frankie. She faces nasty comments and images at school but these also spread online when a meme is made about her. She starts to feel physically ill and becomes afraid to leave her house.

The blood moon of the title also refers to Frankie’s love of astronomy. She works at the local observatory, along with her best friend Harriet, and is hoping to get a summer internship there. Frankie and Harriet have a telescope in their treehouse and it’s their shared history and interests that help to heal their relationship.

This is a must read for teenagers and adults alike.

Eight Keys by Suzanne LaFleur

Elise never really knew her parents.  Her mum died after her birth and her dad got sick and died of cancer a few years later.  Her Uncle Hugh and Aunt Bessie promised to look after her and she has lived with them ever since.  She’s been best friends with Franklin for years and they’ve always loved playing games like Knights together.  When they start middle school Elise starts to get embarrassed by Franklin and doesn’t want to hang around with him anymore.  Then there’s her locker buddy, Amanda who nicknames her Scabula and squashes her lunch every morning.  Elise starts to hate school and is afraid to go because of Amanda’s bullying.  Just when she needs it a special surprise comes along.  Her father leaves her a mystery to unlock and with each discovery a new key arrives.

Eight Keys is about a girl discovering who she is and learning about the parents she didn’t know.  When Elise is feeling lost and worried, the mystery that her father left for her comes along and helps her choose who she wants to be.  It helps her see who her mum and dad were and how much they loved her, even before she was born.  You see a real change in Elise, from the worried, confused girl at the start to the confident, happy girl at the end.  I really liked the character of Franklin because he’s funny, loyal and will do anything to help his friend.  Eight Keys is the perfect book for girls who like Jacqueline Wilson and Cathy Cassidy.  It will make you laugh and cry, but leave a smile on your face.

Eight Keys would make a great read-aloud for 9-12 year olds, especially as it deals with bullying and friendship.