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Saturday, January 16, 2016

The Thing About Jellyfish

The next book I'm going to read to my students is The Thing About Jellyfish, which was nominated for a National Book Award. I think it will be good for them, but a little bit like peas are good for them. I'm not sure how they will like it, because it is almost completely bleak.

The story is about a seventh-grader, Suzy Swanson, who is going through a very tough time. Her former best friend, Franny, has drowned. She reacts so strongly that she has stopped speaking. She is what might be politely called a nerd, full of facts and figures, and has lately been obsessed with jellyfish. She becomes convinced that Franny was killed by one, a tiny species that is almost invisible, but has powerful venom.

Suzy studies jellyfish, and researches experts who might help her. She decides on a biologist in Australia, and plots running away from home to discuss her theory with him. Needless to say, Suzy is a very disturbed little girl.

The writing, by Ali Benjamin, is terrific, though despairing. It is narrated by Suzy, who tells us how she met Franny, became friends, and how their friendship dissipated. This part should be very close to home to many girls, as Franny gravitates toward the popular (and therefore, shallow) girls, while Suzy doesn't hide her eccentricities (when she is invited to sit with the popular girls, she chatters on about how sweat and urine are sterile). At one point, and I think all kids who have been outsiders have heard this, Franny asks Suzy, "Why do you have to be so weird?"

Jellyfish are an interesting subject, and this novel covers just about it all (it grew out of a nonfiction article Benjamin wrote). We learn that they have been around long before most other animals, and have survived every mass extinction, and are taking over the oceans because of global warming and over-fishing. Benjamin frames the novel in the steps of a science experiment, so kids who are into science would especially like it.

There is a heartwarming ending, but after teaching my kids Walk Two Moons, which is full of death, I wonder how my kids will take this.

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