Sunday, April 2, 2017

The thing about jellyfish by Ali Benjamin

As humans we constantly seek answers.  When someone dies, especially a younger person, we want to know why and how and most importantly was there something we should have done to prevent this.

Franny and Suzy had been friends since elementary school.  One day her mum calls her inside and says "Franny Jackson drowned."  Suzy is obsessed by numbers.  These are just three words but these words begin a tumultuous internal dialogue which sees Suzy trying to make peace with her childhood 'friend' and her own mistakes of the past.

"None of it made sense. Not then, and not later that night when the Earth dipped toward the stars. Not the next morning when it rolled back around to sunlight again."

Suzy needs answers so she turns to science she also decides to become silent.  Her self imposed silence means finding the answer to this tragedy become very one sided.  There is no one to collaborate with - no other view points.  Suzy is utterly convinced the culprit is the Irukandji jellyfish and so her scientific mind sets about intensive research to find everything she can about this mysterious creature - hence the title 'The thing about jellyfish.'

The class have to present a science talk on a topic of their own choice.  Each chapter of The thing about Jellyfish begins with an aspect of the scientific method their teacher Mrs Turton expects them to use.  One day she shows the class a set of pictures of earth seen from space.

"Here I was, just one out of seven billion people, and people were just one species out of ten million and those ten million were just a tiny fraction of all the species that ever existed, and somehow all of fit onto that fleck of brown dust on the screen. And we were surrounded by nothingness."

There are three narratives in this story shown with different fonts. The present action where we read about Suzy, her family and her jellyfish research, childhood scenes in happier times when Suzy and Franny were best friends and the recent past when pressures of the peer group and feelings of alienation wrecked everything for Suzy.  The scenes where Franny's new friends reject Suzy and Suzy's own social confusions are quite confronting.

One of the bloggers I follow is Mrs Yingling and the part of her reviews I really appreciate is her final comment "What I really think".

So what do I really think about The thing about Jellyfish.   I knew I would cry in this book but really the tears were not a result of my deep emotional connection with Suzy and her terrible experience of the death of a close friend.  I admire her drive, her attention to detail and her deep research but I remain a little confused about Suzy.  I felt she may be on the autism spectrum because she was so obsessive about numbers and details and so confused by social situations but the final scenes made me revise this idea.  I am sure this is a book that readers over 12 will enjoy and perhaps relate to especially as they navigate their confusion with identity and peer expectations.

My big problem with this book, though,  is with the suggested readership. The New York Times says 9-12.  I totally disagree.  I think this is for very mature senior primary students but really it is even more suitable for junior High School students.  There are references in this book to same sex relationships and after an especially awful scene Suzy, who is twelve, finds her period has started. In contrast Kirkus say 12+ and I agree with this.

Here is an interview with the author.  You might also enjoy Counting by 7s and True (sort of).

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