Friday, January 8, 2016

Young Adult Fiction: The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin

With young adult fiction being one of my favorite genres, it is both hard and easy for me to pick books to review in this category. Hard because I find myself becoming interested in so many, and unless I turn this blog into one purely for young adult fiction, there just isn't enough time and space for me to review them all. But it is also easy because there is so much to choose from, and it doesn't take much for me to consider a young adult fiction novel, at least compared to some of the other categories, such as science fiction. The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin was one I knew I would eventually get around to, even if it hadn't been in 2015. The idea of a grieving child retreating into silence isn't exactly new, but I wanted to see in what direction Benjamin took the story.

The Situation: Suzy Swanson has started seventh grade, but this year she will be without her best friend, Franny. In the summer before the new school year started, Franny drowned while swimming at the beach, leaving behind grieving family, friends, teachers, and a community asking why. Suzy can't understand it, not only because she is only in the 7th grade and lost her best friend, but also because Franny was a strong swimmer. How can a strong swimmer drown? Suzy cannot accept the answer that is given to her, which is the idea that sometimes "things just happen." So instead she attempts to find the truth for herself, which leads her to her exploration of and fascination with jellyfish, believing them to be the answer to what really happened to Franny.

The Problem: Since the terrible tragedy that took Franny, Suzy has decided to stop talking, or at least not to talk unless it is absolutely necessary. Of course, this causes both frustration and concern for her parents. They may understand that she is grieving, but what they don't understand is Suzy's guilt over the last time she saw Franny. During sixth grade, the two childhood friends had drifted apart. But on the last day of school, Suzy did something so awful that she sees herself as the villain in Franny's story, even though it wasn't her who caused the two to no longer be friends in the first place. Plus, while she has picked jellyfish as her topic for the school science project, and has certainly done enough research and worked very hard, in order to pass 7th grade science, she is going to have to do an oral report. The girl who had decided not to speak anymore is going to have to open her mouth and talk.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult novel that is geared more towards a middle grade (or middle school) audience, as opposed to teenagers in high school, like most of the YA books I usually choose. It explores the grief of a young girl who had already felt like she was on the outside of everything, and now she has lost her best friend in a tragic way, with no concrete answers as to why these things happen to comfort her. But Suzy isn't different just because she no longer talks or because of her frizzy and unruly hair. She is also different from most of her classmates because of how much knowledge she has and how much she loves researching, investigating, and finding her own answers. She doesn't look at the world in quite the same way as most 7th graders, and her classmates have certainly noticed. Middle school being the cruel and awful place that it is, Suzy isn't exactly popular, and when she had Franny by her side, that didn't matter. But when Franny decides that popularity is at least important to her, Suzy experiences that betrayal we all have felt at one point in time when a friend walks away. And probably the most interesting (and sad) thing about this story is the fact that this kind of betrayal doesn't only occur among 12 year-olds. 

My Verdict: This book delivered better than I thought it would. There is a reason it was nominated for a Goodreads Choice Award, as Benjamin gives us a loveable and understandably heartbroken narrator doing the best she can with a grief she doesn't understand. While middle schoolers can be annoying, and the ones Suzy goes to school with are no exception, Suzy herself is delightful and relateable. And her sense of curiosity is refreshing, especially when put against a backdrop of a middle school full of kids that aren't so curious, at least not about science. And while the book deals with the death of a young child, the subject isn't made so heavy that it is unbearable. In fact, probably the most emotional moments for me came from Suzy attempting to plan her way to Australia in order to talk to one of the leading jellyfish experts. How serious she is, and how meticulous she is in her planning revealed to me just how much she was hurting.

Favorite Moment: Whenever Suzy makes plans for her trip to see jellyfish expert Dr. Jamie Seymour in Australia. Maybe it is because I love that act of purchasing plane tickets, booking the hotel, and making lists of what to pack and what to see, but I loved Suzy's method of putting her trip together.

Favorite Character: Since middle school children are mostly awful, I thought this would be more difficult. But despite her silence, Suzy does manage to make a friend in Justin, a boy in her science class who is on medication for his ADHD. He doesn't mind that Suzy doesn't talk, and is perfectly content with carrying the burden of the conversation. He is also one of the few students that doesn't tease her, and is genuinely interested in a lot of the same stuff she is. 

Recommended Reading: I don't read a lot of middle grade YA, but I will recommend either Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaira, or We Were Liars by E. Lockhart.   

No comments: