The Thing About Jellyfish

thethingaboutjellyfish

The Thing About Jellyfish
Ali Benjamin
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
September 2015

Science-minded Suzy knows that everything happens for a reason, even her estranged best friend Franny’s untimely death by drowning. On a class trip to the aquarium Suzy convinces herself that Franny’s death wasn’t an accident. Her hypothesis (the book is divided into sections by the scientific method) is that it was caused by a sting from from a minuscule but deadly species of jellyfish. Upon learning about Franny’s drowning, Suzy goes practically mute, giving her a lot of time to figure out how to prove her hypothesis. She eventually decides that she needs to travel to Australia, in secret because her family would think she is “cray cray,” to talk to an expert on this species of jellyfish, causing her to steal her dad’s credit card information and cash from her mom and brother. Interspersed chapters are flashbacks written, somewhat awkwardly in the second-person present, by Suzy to Franny about their growing up together, growing apart as middle school approached, and finally an act – a grand gesture? revenge? – that Suzy never had the chance to own up to or apologize for, causing her immense guilt now that Franny is gone.

This past summer one of my best friends from college passed away suddenly, and it was one of the most emotionally difficult times of my life. I found myself relating in a lot of ways to Suzy’s reaction to Franny’s death – the initial disbelief, then imagining your friend’s last moments, searching for an explanation or meaning, and being nearly consumed with thoughts of this person you realize you totally took for granted. It’s powerful, heavy stuff and Ali Benjamin gave it the serious treatment it deserved, particularly when it is a pre-teen experiencing this level of loss.

The depictions of middle school in this book are so painfully accurate – being awkward, not knowing where you fit in, growing apart from your best friend, making a friend you don’t expect. However the grand-gesture/revenge flashback scene took on a level of ridiculousness that I just didn’t know what to do with. It was totally original, I’ll give Ali Benjamin that. I do, however, have some questions about the logistics described to pull off something so over the top and borderline psychopathic. I’m going to leave it at that.

The Thing About Jellyfish was a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award. You can read the NBA interview with Ali Benjamin here.

Read-alikes

Olive’s Ocean by Kevin Henkes

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Millicent Min, Girl Genius

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Millicent Min, Girl Genius
Lisa Yee
Scholastic
October 2003

It’s not easy being a genius, even during summer vacation. Millicent Min, an 12-year-old rising high school senior with no friends (except her grandmother) and few non-academic interests, is taking a “fun” college summer class – poetry – while also reluctantly playing on a club volleyball team and tutoring jock Stanford Wong who is in danger of flunking out of the sixth grade. Millicent befriends her volleyball teammate Emily but doesn’t tell her that she is a certified genius (according to IQ tests and that fact that Millicent was on talk shows as a child) for fear that Emily won’t want to be friends any more. But when a crush between Stanford and Emily leads to Stanford claiming that he is the one tutoring Millicent, she can only hide the truth for so long. Can Emily accept Millicent’s genius? Or is Millicent’s fear of rejection overblown? Lisa Yee creates a funny and charming cast of characters of whom Millicent, at 12 years old, is the most mature, almost to the point of being a parody of a child genius. However, Millicent’s naivety shines through in so many non-intellectual interactions, sometimes hilariously (when she thinks Emily’s mom is going to offer her weed) and sometimes pitifully (in the case of her “friendship” with a college student who is really just using her), reminding the reader of how young she really is and making her relatable for middle grade readers.

Millicent Min, Girl Genius is one of three books in the Millicent Min trilogy. Rather than the sequels being a linear telling within the same world, each book tells the same story from a different point of view. This layering of stories is one of my favorite exercises in children’s literature. I haven’t read the other two books – from Stanford and Emily’s points of view – but I love the idea of presenting to children the same conflicts through others’ eyes. Adults talk a big game about “walking in someone else’s shoes” but children (and let’s be honest, many adults) have a hard time gaining the empathy to actually put it into practice. Books and series that do the leg work of making the other side of the story plain are a great way to practice empathy and consider all the angles before you judge too quickly. I’m planning to read the other two books and will report back!

Read alikes, smart kids

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
Matilda by Roald Dahl
Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper
Winger by Andrew Smith

Read alikes, multiple viewpoints

Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman
Every Soul a Star by Wendy Mass
Wonder by R.J. Palacio

NaNoReadMo: The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls

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The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls
Claire LeGrand
Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
August 2012

Victoria is perfect and particular, which has lead her to have only one friend in the whole world, Lawrence. When, like a handful of other kids in the neighborhood, Lawrence suddenly goes missing, Victoria must get to the bottom of it. She becomes suspicious of the Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls, an ominous and mysterious school nearby and takes it upon herself to investigate. The horrors she finds there are beyond what she could have dreamed up and she finds that she’ll not only have to save her friend but also herself.

I have a serious love of children’s horror novels, and Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls is near the top of that list. As far as horror goes, this is one of the most messed up children’s books I have had the pleasure to read. The things that happen in that school, while still being totally middle-grade appropriate, are gross, disturbing, and actually scary. Even as an adult, this book took me back to how I felt when I read The Dollhouse Murders as a kid, which is the litmus test against which I hold every other children’s horror book. Claire LeGrand also hits on so many good horror tropes – creepy houses, confined spaces, killer plants, mystery meat, insects! I could go on but I’ve already said too much.

The illustrations and book design rock to boot.

Read alikes:

The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier
Coraline by Neil Gaiman
Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz

Brown Girl Dreaming

Brown_Girl_Dreaming

Brown Girl Dreaming
Jacqueline Woodson
August 2014

Rarely is my reading so perfectly timed as it was this past week when I finished Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming at just about the time she was winning the National Book Award. I can’t really take credit; I was reading it for book club. I did, however, feel that I could vouch for this book’s worthiness as I had almost no time between finishing it, loving it, and having my feelings completely validated as it was thrust into a deserving spotlight.

In Brown Girl Dreaming, Jacqueline Woodson writes about her own childhood and coming of age being shuttled between her mother in New York City and her grandparents in Greenville, South Carolina. While the movement between the north and the south in the midst of the civil rights movement of the 1960s informs much of Jackie’s racial identity and exploration throughout the book, her story is so much more than a personal history of race, as the title may make you believe. Jackie is so many things in this book: a Jehovah’s witness (though a somewhat reluctant one), aspiring writer and poet (despite her struggles with reading), friend, sister, daughter, and granddaughter.

The entire book is told in free verse poems, none more than three pages long. In a less skilled writer’s hands, such short snapshots could easily become episodic and disconnected, glimpses of a life instead of the story of a life, but the linear chronology of her story and the threads that run throughout keep it all together. While not every poem moves the action forward, they all contribute to the depth of Jackie’s character and her overall journey to young adulthood.

While many of the themes in Brown Girl Dreaming continue to be relevant today, one poem in particular – “stevie and me” (p. 227) – is especially relevant for its connection to diversity in children’s literature and the We Need Diverse Books movement. In this poem, Jackie is at the library where she and her siblings can choose any 7 books they want to check out. Because of her difficulty reading, she is drawn to the picture books:

If someone had been fussing with me
to read like my sister, I might have missed
the picture book filled with brown people, more
brown people than I’d ever seen
in a book before…

If someone had taken
that book out of my hand
said, You’re too old for this
maybe
I’d never have believed
that someone who looked like me
could be in the pages of the book
that someone who looked like me
had a story.

I think it is safe to say that Jackie certainly has a story, and one that we can all be glad she shared in Brown Girl Dreaming.

Meanwhile, outside the book bubble…

I spend a lot…seriously, A LOT…of time on book blogs – reading reviews, witty commentary, new releases and other stuff that people who are obsessed with books or obsessed with getting a library job again read. That being said, I read blogs about other stuff too, and one of my favorites is Design*Sponge, the blog turned multimedia darling started by the adorable Grace Bonney. Today, my blog worlds collided when I got onto my Reader to see that Grace had written a post about Wildwood, which I just so happen to be reading at the moment. Really, I should have known the book would show up on a design blog somewhere as the illustrations are not only charming, stylish and somewhat rustic, but the book itself is small cut compared to your typical novel and it has color plates, as way more books should (I’m looking at you, Okay for Now).

While part of me wanted to be a snooty academic and pass off her review as naive, I actually found myself enjoying Grace’s non-cynical, non-critical, non-former-lit-grad-student point of view. Sometimes I get so caught up in everything I’ve read – books, reviews, critical articles, tweets! – that sometimes nothing is good enough. Here I’ve been reading Wildwood and thinking how contrived and derivitive it is at points, and how everyone is so hyped on this book because the author is a semi-celebrity who just happens to write well (really, the book is well written). At the same time, I have enjoyed the book so far, when I let myself. If I could just forget my academic training every once in a while and just let myself enjoy a book for what it is, I think would find the kind of simple joy in books that Grace found in Wildwood. Clearly I need to get out of my critical bubble (or Impassable Wilderness?) every once in a while and enjoy children’s books the way they were meant to be enjoyed…like a child, with an open mind.