The Thing About Jellyfish

the thing about jellyfish

Title: The Thing About Jellyfish
Author: Ali Benjamin
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Year of Publication: 2015
Genre: realistic fiction

Friendships either grow and evolve, or sometimes they completely fizzle. Suzy Swanson’s childhood friendship with Franny fizzled in sixth grade. In a desperate, misguided attempt to win Franny back, lack-of-social-skills-but-super-smart Suzy does something truly disgusting. Before the situation is rectified, Franny tragically drowns. As a result, Suzy retreats into a silent world. The protagonist has two primary struggles in this novel: she harbors guilt for the fact that her issues with Franny were never resolved, and, unwilling to accept that awful things sometimes happen, she becomes obsessed with finding a reason for Franny’s death.

There are several aspects of this novel that I appreciate.

The jellyfish tie in. Did you know that jellyfish have been around for at least 600 million years? Did you know they’ve survived five mass extinctions on our planet? How about the fact that jellyfish populations are exploding and depleting other creatures, like penguins, of their food supply? Ali Benjamin seamlessly weaves these facts and many more into Suzy’s story.

The way it is organized like a scientific experiment. The sections of the book are divided into the steps of a scientific experiment: purpose, hypothesis, background, variables, procedure, results, conclusion. This ties in nicely with the jellyfish information that is presented, and with Suzy’s grief process.

The fact that Suzy’s brother is gay, and it’s not a big deal. Aaron’s sexuality is never discussed, it’s just a part of the story. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I appreciate the fact that diverse family structures are becoming more commonplace in children’s literature.

It doesn’t have a neat and tidy ending. What real experience of guilt or grief does? Suzy grows and comes to a place of acceptance by the end of the book, but she definitely doesn’t go skipping off into the sunset. As a reader, I was left with some residual sadness.

The Thing About Jellyfish is a fantastic debut novel that is sure to inspire conversations about awkward social moments, grief, and friendship.

The War that Saved My Life

the war that saved my life

Title: The War that Saved My Life
Author: Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
Publisher: Dial Books
Year of Publication: 2015
Genre: historical fiction

Ten-year-old Ada and her little brother, Jamie, were born to a cruel, unloving mother. “Mam” is ashamed of Ada’s clubfoot, and refuses to let her leave their tiny London flat. Mam flies off the handle regularly and hurls verbal insults, and her fists, at the children. Ada takes the brunt of the abuse, and is often locked into a tiny, roach-infested cupboard. As Hitler’s troops and the threat of bombing become imminent, English parents are ordered to send their children to the countryside. Mam refuses to let Ada evacuate with Jamie, but the young heroine finds a way to outwit her. The siblings end up in a small coastal village, under the care of Susan, who immediately declares that she is “not nice”. Though she is in the midst of deep grief over the recent death of her partner, Becky, Susan warms to the children. Under her care, and with fresh air, regular meals, and a newfound passion (and talent) for horseback riding, Ada blossoms. Her joy and hope are marred by a sense of dread. When will she and Jamie have to return to Mam? What will happen to them then?

Strong characters and a believable description of World War II events make this book a wonderful read. The topics for discussion are plentiful: clubfoot, abuse, neglect, Operation Pied Piper, grief, spies, ponies, hope, friendship, bomb shelters, family, resilience, and the list goes on. A subtlety I appreciate about the novel is that one can infer that the relationship between Susan and Becky was deeper than friendship. The fact that the author doesn’t come out directly and say this is so gives their relationship a sense of (much deserved) normalcy.

Rain Reign

rain reign

Title: Rain Reign
Author: Ann M. Martin
Publisher: Feiwel & Friends
Year of Publication: 2014
Genre: realistic fiction
Literary Awards: Schneider Family Book Award for Middle School (2015), Charlotte Huck Book Award (2015)

As a child, I spent a lot of time reading Ann M. Martin’s series, The Babysitters Club, so it was with a bit of nostalgia that I picked up Rain Reign. I’m so glad I did! Rose (rows) Howard has Asperger syndrome. She lives with her single father, who has a hard time understanding her obsession with homonyms, prime numbers, and rules. Rose’s teachers and classmates also struggle to understand the things that make her different. Thankfully, she has her Uncle Weldon, who completely gets her, and her adopted dog Rain (reign, rein). Rain goes missing when a storm hits their rural town, and Rose is thrust into a life-changing adventure, both heartbreaking and heartwarming. With wordplay and plenty of opportunities to discuss empathy, this book would be great as a read aloud for grades four and up.