Virtual event: Starfish author Lisa Fipps at the Newton Free Library

Cover image of StarfishBig thanks to the children’s librarians at the Newton Free Library for organizing, promoting, hosting, and moderating a delightful virtual author visit with Lisa Fipps, author of the novel in verse Starfish, a Printz honor book. Lisa was incredibly friendly and personable, doing only a short introduction before answering tons of questions from the Newton Free Library book club and other attendees.

Some snippets:

  • On the writing process: Lisa sees “movie trailers in my head”
  • On autobiographical fiction: Ellie got “the watered down story of my life” with authentic emotions
  • To those who say “things like that would never happen”: “They do.”
  • On growing up without seeing herself in books: “I didn’t know anybody like me” (#RepresentationMatters)
  • On wanting to make post-publication changes: “I don’t know any writer who doesn’t look back on a book” and want to change something. Lisa didn’t read Starfish until six months after it was published, and while there are small things she would change if she could, “I’m okay with it.”
  • On how to get published: “First you have to write the story.” Then find an agent (hers is Liza Boyce), who will help you find an editor (hers is Nancy Paulsen).
  • Will there be a sequel or prequel? The Printz committee asked this too! Not sure.
  • On future books: Nancy is editing book number two now, and Lisa is writing book number three.
  • How long does it take you to write a book? Starfish took eight months, the next book took six. Lisa is trying to write 2-3 books a year; “I want to be a full-time author and you need to write a lot to make that happen.” (Currently she works at the Kokomo-Howard County Public Library in Indiana)
  • On that stuff on the table behind you: the penguin collection is because Nancy Paulsen’s imprint is part of Penguin Random House (which at least two librarians agree should have been called Random Penguin when they merged). The “inspiration jars” (see photo) are full of good reviews, fan letters, kind words, etc. That’s a lot of warm fuzzies!Screenshot of "inspiration jars"
  • On the role of music in writing: Lisa creates a playlist for every book she writes, to get into the characters’ heads; when actually writing, she listens to music with no lyrics.
  • How have family members responded to Starfish? “I have no idea, I’m estranged from my [biological] family” (except for a nephew); “I have families of choice.”
  • Advice for young writers? Write. And read a lot. “I try to read 3-5 books a week.”
  • What time of day do you write? Evenings after work, with marathon writing sessions (8-10 hours!) on weekends.
  • Do you read other novels in verse? Yes! The first one she read was Stop Pretending by Sonya Sones. “I think verse is a way to tell a powerful story in a short amount of words.”
  • On Ann Patchett’s advice to read your work aloud to yourself: “You will hear any clunkiness in your writing like that.” Lisa even recommends doing this while wearing foam earplugs.
  • On the therapist character in Starfish: Lisa used the wisdom of therapists mixed with the personality of a critique partner. (Readers loved Ellie’s therapist. Librarian Ms. Bery included Starfish in her list of books that normalize therapy.)
  • On Catalina’s character: Catalina is a “composite character” (bits and pieces of different people).

Thank you so much, Lisa Fipps and Newton Free Library!

How reading shapes us

For many years I have loved this quote: “It’s what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.” I’m not sure where I first heard it, but it was attributed to Oscar Wilde. However, I’d never found an original source – it’s not in Dorian Gray or The Importance of Being Earnest – and somehow it didn’t quite sound like him. I searched online again recently and found this Quote Investigator piece from 2019, which gives a more likely source (Unitarian minister Charles Francis Potter) and explains how the mix-up occurred: Potter and Wilde each had a quote attributed to them in the “Reading” section of The Macmillan Book of Proverbs, Maxims, & Famous Phrases.

I was able to request the 1965 reprint of this nearly 3000-page book from my library system and see for myself on page 1939:

section of page 1939 of

“If you cannot enjoy reading a book over and over again, there is no use reading it at all.” -Oscar Wilde, The Decay of Lying (1889)

“It’s what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.” -Rev. D.F. [sic] Potter, Slogan, to encourage un-prescribed reading (1927)

So there we have it – the likely origin of the mis-attribution. But why is this quote important, and what does it mean? There’s also the poetry and rhythm and repetition of it; it’s almost iambic. But I think it’s stuck with me all these years because I didn’t completely understand it when I first heard it; of course, I heard it out of context, and the context helps.

Potter was urging students to read more than just what was assigned to them, to go above and beyond. Our assigned reading may not truly interest us; we’ve all had the experience of re-reading a paragraph several times without really absorbing it. As Samuel Johnson writes, “What we read with inclination makes a much stronger impression. If we read without inclination, half the mind is employed in fixing the attention (Boswell, Life, 1777, quoted on page 1938 of Macmillan).

What Potter seems to be saying is that what you read in your free time determines what kind of person you will be. And I think these days we can expand the definition of “read,” or at the very least include all kinds of reading/listening/watching: car manuals, political podcasts, history books, sung-through musicals, fairytales, cookbooks, how-to books, game instructions, long e-mails from school superintendents, nonprofits’ annual reports. Everything we read, or consume, makes us what we are – or put another way, “you are what you eat.”

Some more quotes on reading from The Macmillan Book of Proverbs, Maxims, & Famous Phrases:

Some read to think,–these are rare; some to write,–these are common; and some to talk,–and these form the great majority. (C.C. Colton, Lacon, Vol. ii, No. 9, 1820)

To read a book for the first time is to make the acquaintance of a new friend; to read it a second time is to meet an old one. (S.G. Champion, Racial Proverbs, p. 351, 1938, A Chinese proverb)

It is a tie between men to have read the same book. (R.W. Emerson, Journals, 1864)

‘Tis the good reader that makes the good book. (Emerson, Society and Solitude: Success, 1870)

Reading is the best medicine for a sicke man, the best musicke for a sadde man, the best counsel for a desperate man, the best comfort for one afflicted. (John Florio, Firste Fruites, fo. 52, 1578)

Bates Hall, Boston Public Library. By Hari Krishnan – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,