Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin

Ali Benjamin sure knows how to infuse her plot with tense emotional situations. From death to changing friendships to bullying she captures middle school and all its ugliness and uncertainty with an identity crisis that brings about self-understanding and confidence for the main character. For the most part she does this well, but other times misses the mark a bit as Suzy becomes too extreme as the nerdy, factual character that is hopelessly inept socially - to the point that I thought something might be wrong with her medically. But then Benjamin pulls back and I was able to get absorbed by the story again. I can recommend this to students that like "Wonder," "One for the Murphys," and "Out of My Mind." A strong debut novel that will have me on the look-out for more books by this author.

Twelve-year-old Suzy Swanson has decided to stop talking to people after the death of her best friend, Franny, in a swimming accident. After seeing an Irukandji jellyfish on a school field trip, Suzy develops a theory that her friend drown because this venomous jellyfish stung her as a result of global warming and it being found in parts of the world never before. She researches everything she can on the fish and decides that an expert in Australia can help her prove her hypothesis.

Suzy tells the story with flashbacks to when she and Franny were friends. They had a falling out that is slowly revealed as the author unfolds details leading up to their split. The cruel killing of an amphibian might upset some readers. Flashbacks oftentimes do not hold my interest like the narrative, but that is not the case here. Benjamin does an excellent job weaving forward and back in time to create an engrossing story.

The study of jellyfish and Suzy's hypothesis of what happened to Franny makes for an interesting juxtaposition between nonfiction and fictional narration. Suzy is presented as a misfit along with Justin who has ADHD but understands it better than most his age. While I liked him as a character giving some relief to Suzy's seriousness, he seemed a bit too old and mature. Perhaps it was him poking fun at being ADHD and understanding how it affected others negatively. I grew up with an ADHD person and Justin's character lacked some authenticity for me. The bullying seemed a bit over the top. It makes the story more emotional but at one point I felt I was being manipulated and wondered how their friendship could have turned into something quite so nasty. And Suzy's justification of what she did back was weak. These are minor points and don't detract much from Suzy's character arc. Add it to your to-read list.

5 Smileys

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