Thursday, October 8, 2015

The Thing about Jellyfish

The Thing about Jellyfish
Ali Benjamin
Little Brown, 2015
Grades 5-8
Realistic Fiction

Seventh-grader, Suzy is a tween in crisis. Her former best friend Franny, drowned over the summer and Suzy has stopped talking. She and Franny drifted apart the year before as Franny ditched her to become popular. Now Suzy feels like the school outcast and, because of an unfortunate action of retaliation, guilty for how things were left with her former best friend. Franny was an excellent swimmer, so the drowning does not make sense to Suzy. Answers come on a class visit to the local aquarium where Suzy discovers jellyfish and their ability to poison an individual. Suzy becomes obsessed with jellyfish and proving that they were the cause of Franny's death. Her research leads her to some of the most notable jellyfish experts in the world. Looking for help, she settles on an Australian researcher and devises a cunning plan to run away from home, fly to Australia using her divorced father's credit card information, and track the jellyfish expert down to prove the cause of Franny's death. The escape plan does not go as Suzy planned, but it does serve to break the wall of silence and let her family in through the walls of grief and guilt that she has created to cope with the tragedy. By the book's end Suzy is on the road to healing and has found two potential friends and a like-minded science teacher along the way.

This is, I really mean it this time, so far the best book I have read this year. Benjamin tells a powerful story filled with sadness and healing. Even though the subject matter is sad, the book does not wallow in tone or pacing. It moves along quickly and is very readable. Despite the serious theme, children will not be put off the book once they begin reading it and it is very hard to put down. The story behind Suzy and Franny's relationship and its demise is revealed slowly, leaving an element of surprise. The present action, Suzy remembering the past, and life as she reveals it in her journal are all printing in different fonts to help the reader keep straight what is going on, yet adding dimension and layers to the story. Benjamin gently includes jellyfish facts throughout the book, drawing in nature lovers and educating the ignorant (me!). An author's note in the back clarifies some facts and reveals the identities real life jellyfish experts in the story. So far this is my prediction for the Newbery Medal. Why do I think it will win? It is very well written, made me cry twice, and the science connection will appeal to the STEM-mad agenda currently found in both schools and libraries. The Thing about Jellyfish will be enjoyed by both boys and girls and, despite being carefully written, is designed for young readers, not adults who read kid's books. My only quibble is that the new girl dumping the "cool crowd" to befriend Suzy is a bit unrealistic and unnecessary, but young readers will appreciate the happy ending.

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