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The Thing About Jellyfish

The Thing Aboutu JellyfishThrough NetGalley, I had the opportunity to read The Thing About Jellyfish, by Ali Benjamin, a middle grade book that will debut mid-September 2015. In this book, Suzy Swanson processes the death of her old friend Franny and the end of a friendship. She grieves the way that she and Franny grew apart before Franny drowned. Suzy’s way of making sense of this loss is to fixate on jellyfish: she reads about them and believes that Franny must have drowned after being stung by a jellyfish because otherwise Franny’s death makes no sense.

When I worked in children’s publishing many years ago, I remember that we had specific educational books and then we had fiction. Years after I left that industry, I learned that even fiction books need some kind of educational component in order to sell them to the school and library market…I say that to say that this book has a lot of educational material. The author really packs in the scientific info and uses a science teacher’s explanation of the scientific method to introduce each chapter. This is not a bad thing but it is noticeable. When you choose fiction do you consider its academic as well as its storytelling merits?

At the end of the book, the author explained how the book began with the copious research she did for a different project that was rejected. She repurposed that research to create Suzy, a character who finds subjects she is passionate about but misses the social cues that would tell her when others may not be quite a interested as she is.

As a reader, I came to feel a lot of compassion for Suzy because she is so lost. The first half of the book alternates between the present and Suzy slowly narrating just how she and Franny went from young BFFs to sitting at separate lunch tables and no longer hanging out in middle school. As a parent, the book is a reminder of a child’s rich inner life: you just can’t know all your child is going through. Suzy’s well-meaning parents put her in therapy and try their best but they aren’t really reaching her.

The tone of the book changes when Suzy decides to embark on a trip to see the one person she thinks will understand her interest in jellyfish. While I’m not one who believes that every wring must be severely punished, I was surprised at the lack of consequences in this book. Suzy steals significant amounts of money from family members but I guess they feel that she has been through enough so they don’t address the theft in a punitive way.

Towards the end of the book Suzy finally reveals her rather disturbing actions that may have done away with any chance that Franny would reach out to her again. Suzy is never found out and doesn’t get to speak to Franny again before Franny dies but clearly Suzy feels a lot of guilt, which can be its own punishment.

Jada Bradley About Jada Bradley

Jada Bradley applies her book publishing background to her work as a freelance writer/ editor and ELL teacher in the Washington, D.C. area.

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