The Thing About Jellyfish

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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

Bone Gap

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Bone Gap
Laura Ruby
Balzer + Bray
March 2015

In the small, cornfield-surrounded town of Bone Gap, Illinois, beautiful and foreign Roza mysteriously appears in the farmhouse of Finn and Sean O’Sullivan and after a few months disappears again under mysterious circumstances. Finn, known as Moonface and Sidetrack by the townspeople for his strange demeanor, was the only person to witness her kidnapping but cannot seem to recall enough of the incident to provide a good description of the kidnapper. Sean, like half the town, was in love with Roza and is finding it hard to forgive his younger brother for his lack of helpfulness in the investigation. Meanwhile Finn falls in love with fellow strange teen Petey, the daughter of the local beekeeper, who discovers the reason for Finn’s spaciness. Strange occurrences abound – Finn finds a beautiful horse in his barn which he takes for midnight rides with Petey to what seems like the other side of the proverbial veil. Roza, who narrates many of the chapters from her captivity, is moved from a house to a castle to a beautiful garden that are all able to magically transform. Can these fantastical, enigmatic happenings help Finn find Roza and repair his relationship with his brother, Petey, and the town? Or will he forever be the moonfaced kid with the missing link to an unsolved mystery hidden somewhere in his memory?

This book is so hard to pin down, especially while you are reading it. Looking back after finishing the whole thing, it fits into the coming-of-age, mystery, romance, myth/fantasy/horror genre – which is to say that it pretty much defies genre. Basically it is everything I hoped Swamplandia! would be when I impressed my YA expectations on that adult novel (HUGE mistake, by the way). The writing is beautiful and strange and sometimes that is the only thing you have to hold onto as you think to yourself “what is even going on right now?! No, actually, I don’t care. I’m just going to keep reading these beautiful words.”

{slight spoiler alert ahead!!!}
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This book was a finalist for a National Book Award, I imagine both for the writing and for the topical young-woman-gets-kidnapped, boy with disability saves the day. There’s an illuminating and awesomely crit-lit-esque interview with Laura Ruby on the National Book Awards site.

Read alikes

Far Far Away by Tom McNeal
The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton

NOT Swamplandia! by Karen Russell (not that you shouldn’t read it. You should. Just prepare to be traumatized and schooled on how adult literature differs from YA.)

Update: Bone Gap won the 2016 Printz Award for most distinguished book for Young Adult published in 2015. Well deserved!

Challenger Deep

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Challenger Deep
Neal Shusterman
HarperTeen
April 2015

Where is Caden Bosch? Is he afloat a pirate ship run by a ragtag crew and led by a one-eyed madman and his mutinous one-eyed parrot? Is he laying on the table of an all-white kitchen surrounded by people masquerading as his family? Or is he in the real world where his family, friends, classmates, and even strangers witness his increasing paranoia and deteriorating sense of reality? Maybe he is everywhere at once. This is a story of the descent into mental illness told from the inside, narrated first-person by Caden, except in the few instances that he invites the reader to step into his shoes briefly. The book opens “There are two things you know. One: You were there. Two: You couldn’t have been there.” Chapters alternate settings – some in real life and others in Caden’s alternate reality – in a way that one only occasionally hints at the other, leaving the reader looking for clues as to how they connect until eventually the line between the two begins to blur during Caden’s treatment at a youth psychiatric ward. Suspense builds as it becomes clear in all settings that Caden is headed for the darkest, deepest part – the Challenger Deep, the deepest part of the Marianas Trench – of his mind, from which he may never return. Shusterman treats the delicate subject matter with impressive care and honesty. He doesn’t sensationalize or vilify mental illness, the treatment facility or the medical staff, unlike many works of fiction who rely on these devices to create drama. Turns out mental illness and the struggle to regain some kind of normalcy is dramatic enough.

Full disclosure: my dad is a psychiatrist and mental illness runs in my family. So when I read books about mental illness and its treatment, I am a very picky reader. Challenger Deep passed my scrutiny. As I said above, there are no cheap tricks here – no electro-shock treatment (which these days is a totally valid and not very dramatic medical procedure), no rooms with padded walls, no abuse at the hands of the medical staff, and no blaming Caden’s mental state on his high school classmates or anyone else (I’m looking at you, 13 Reasons Why). From his author’s note you can understand his sensitive depiction of Caden’s struggle. He has seen others, including his own son, go through it firsthand. I think it is a beautiful thing that he chose to share that struggle through this book.

Challenger Deep is on the longlist for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. Unfortunately I haven’t read any of the other books, which I am seriously beating myself up about now, so I don’t know how it compares to the others. We’ll just have to wait and see. The finalists will be announced on October 14 and the gala where they announce the winners is on November 18.

Read-alikes:

Placebo Junkies by J.C. Carleson
Magic or Madness by Justine Larbalestier
We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

Brown Girl Dreaming

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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.