Middle Grade Review: The Thing About Jellyfish, by Ali Benjamin


Title: The Thing About Jellyfish
Author: Ali Benjamin
Publisher: Little, Brown & Co., 2015. 343 pages.
Source: Library

Publisher's Summary:
After her best friend dies in a drowning accident, Suzy is convinced that the true cause of the tragedy must have been a rare jellyfish sting-things don't just happen for no reason. Retreating into a silent world of imagination, she crafts a plan to prove her theory--even if it means traveling the globe, alone.

My Review:
First, I want to add a couple of things to the summary: Suzy's grief is complicated by the fact that she and her friend hadn't just parted on bad terms; they had grown apart. And she is the kind of kid who knows lots and lots of little facts, and takes comfort in them.

In fact, then, Suzy appears to be yet another middle-school-book character who is a bit on the Aspergers side of normal.* This does lend legitimacy to her difficulty relating to the other girls her age, including her (former) best friend Franny. She just doesn't get those girly concerns, and they don't get her somewhat different way of seeing/processing the world (which she doesn't know how to filter for the others).

Fine. I'm okay with that, to a point. I do wonder, though, about the prevalence of this character, because it seems like I'm seeing it a lot (the kid with Aspergers, I mean). Is it just an easy way to make the struggles of middle school stand out with greater clarity? I wonder about how well most kids can relate to the "weird kids" in the books. 

Okay, rant over, I will agree with the blurbs that talk about this as a moving book. It is. Suzy's path through her grief to some kind of acceptance is striking and should give most readers, of any age, pause to think (including to think about their relationships). And Suzy's efforts to make sense out of the random accident that caused her friend's death are impressive, if quirky. I like the way she gradually finds her way to friends with whom she can relate, and her silence--she stops speaking entirely not long after the accident--make clear her recognition that she has issues with words. That is, she has trouble figuring out what might be the right words at any time (this makes the Aspergers part make more sense, and feel more necessary to the story, though I'm thinking plenty of neuro-typical middle school kids have no idea what to say).** She stops talking because her words seem to her to lead to trouble, rather than communication.

So: The Thing About Jellyfish is a beautifully written story that weaves together the difficulty of middle school with bigger life issues. 

I think this would be a good story for a lot of middle-school kids to read, both the ones who struggle and the ones who make other struggle. Maybe books like this can help the "popular kids" recognize the humanity of the geeks and nerds and that weird kid who sits alone at lunch? I'm not sure. Most of us don't do well as seeing ourselves in the villains of a piece. But it's worth a try.  Ages 9 or 10 up.

*Note: Suzy is never explicitly described as having Aspergers Syndrome. But her obsessions, focus on obscure facts, and tendency to spew them out without controls make it pretty clear where the author was going with this.

**I can't help thinking of a current discussion in my Goodreads Great Middle Grade Reads group about what current books will become classics. There is a definite feeling that this sort of middle-school-trauma book is too tied to it's own time and place to have that kind of lasting appeal. I suspect that they are right, though that doesn't mean the book isn't a fine and valuable work right now.

FTC Disclosure: I checked The Thing About Jellyfish out of my library, and received nothing from the writer or publisher in exchange for my honest review.  The opinions expressed are my own and those of no one else.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising." 


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