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.

Ivan the Gorilla

ivan the gorilla

Dian Fossey said, “The more you learn about the dignity of the gorilla, the more you want to avoid people.” There is something truly majestic about these human ancestors. I find their hands and facial expressions to be particularly awe-inspiring. Both of these books are about a silverback gorilla named Ivan, torn from his home as an infant and put on display in a shopping mall in Tacoma, Washington. Ivan spent twenty seven years of his life in a cage. Katherine Applegate’s books are a moving tribute to a gorilla who won the hearts of many. Let’s start with the novel, which was released a couple of years before the nonfiction picture book.

one and only ivan

Title: The One and Only Ivan
Author: Katherine Applegate
Illustrator: Patricia Castelao
Publisher: HarperCollins
Year of Publication: 2012
Literary Awards: Newbery Medal (2013), Kirkus Reviews Best Children’s Books (2012), School Library Journal Best Books of the Year (2012), and others!

“I am Ivan. I am a gorilla. It’s not as easy as it looks.” With these words, Ivan begins to narrate the story of his life. I love the voices of the animal characters in this book: wise Stella, the elderly elephant; a surly dog named Bob; little Ruby, a young elephant who becomes the catalyst for change; and of course Ivan, who enjoys finger-painting and is a good friend to all. It is a heartbreaking story, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

the one and only ivan

The One and Only Ivan has been popular as a read aloud at my school, and it is also a book that students regularly check out. The combination of widely spaced text and small but sweet illustrations make this novel accessible to young readers. It’s pretty heavy, so I’d recommend reading it first so you’re ready to process with your kiddos if necessary. Be sure to pair it with the following picture book.

ivan the gorilla

Title: Ivan: The Remarkable True Story of The Shopping Mall Gorilla
Author: Katherine Applegate
Illustrator: G. Brian Karas
Publisher: Clarion Books
Year of Publication: 2014

Like the novel, this book is terribly sad yet ultimately uplifting. Beautiful illustrations and carefully selected words recount Ivan’s journey from central Africa to captivity in a shopping mall. Thanks to the protests and letters of concerned humans, Ivan ended up spending the last part of his life at Zoo Atlanta, under the loving and watchful eyes of scientists and his many fans.

ivan with flowers

Ivan at Zoo Atlanta, photo from Tacoma News Tribune

Ivan was fifty years old when he died in 2012. Don’t miss Jodi Carrigan’s note on the very last page of the book. She was Ivan’s main keeper during the last years of his life, and counted him as her best friend. “His life has been a symbol of the way animals shape our lives . . . and the power we have to shape theirs.”


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.