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.

Who Wants a Hug?

who wants a hug

Title: Who Wants a Hug?
Author: Jeff Mack
Illustrator: Jeff Mack
Publisher: HarperCollins
Year of Publication: 2015

We’ve all known that person: the impossibly cheery, look-on-the-bright side individual who thinks the world’s problems can be solved one hug at a time. Of course, we’re also familiar with our fair share of pessimists: complainers who always have something snarky to contribute to conversations. This adorable book features a lovable, huggable bear and a rather jaded skunk. While the bear skips through the woods offering hugs to one and all, the skunk attempts to thwart his kindness.

who wants a hug

Adorable illustrations and a slight twist at the end of the story make this an enjoyable read for children and adults, both sweet and sour.

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.

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.”