Ali Benjamin’s debut Middle Grade book, The Thing About Jellyfish, is luminous.
And that’s a terrible pun, I know, but truly this book glows with a subtle inner life, much like the jellyfish that float throughout it.
The bones of the story are simple: our narrator Suzy and her best friend Franny drift apart as they enter middle school. Increasingly, Suzy feels isolated as the things that interest her—science facts and the world at large— pale in comparison to Franny’s interests— makeup, boys, and fitting in with the right social circles. The last time Suzy saw Franny, she played a cruel prank on her friend. Then, over the summer, Franny drowns. Suzy never got to say good-bye, and she tries to carry on and make sense of Franny’s death.
This book is permeated by a strong sense of the senselessness of loss and the hopelessness of grief. It’s heavy stuff for a Middle Grade book, and sometimes, the weight of this sadness was too much for me. I often wept silently as I read, and, accordingly, it took me a long, long time to finish such a short book. (I averaged about a chapter a night).
And that’s partially because the story itself is sad. And it’s partially because Benjamin’s lyrical sentences transported me back to middle school, reminding me of losing a friendship that was dear to me. And it’s also because Suzy grapples with a lot of real-world things that I find terrifying and overwhelming.
Like jellyfish blooms. And here I must pause and admit that I knew nothing about jellyfish blooms—or jellyfish—until I read this book. But since Benjamin grew this novel out of a non-fiction essay on jellyfish, it’s full of interesting facts about jellyfish that Suzy mulls and applies to her own life. As Suzy thinks about her friend’s death, wondering again and again how a strong swimmer like Franny could have drowned, she concludes that it must have had something to do with jellyfish. Which due to global warming are spreading like a plague, and moving silently in tremendous numbers throughout the world’s oceans.
The thought of those silent hordes of poisonous goo taking over the oceans makes me panic—much like it does Suzy—and it makes me feel quite overwhelmed by things I cannot control.
Which when I consider this as a metaphor for the tragic and inexplicable loss of a child, it kind of takes my breath away. Because it’s perfect. And sad. And strange. And something I’m still making sense of.
I could go on, but I’ll leave you with my strong recommendation: read The Thing about Jellyfish.
It will take your breath away. It will stir your middle school insecurities, and make you think great thoughts about life, love, and loss. You will see why it was nominated for a National Book Award, and why it’s also being hailed as a book that will make girls like science again. If you’re a Middle Grade writer, I bet you’ll find yourself jotting down Benjamin’s sentences and taking notes on the clever science-experiment structure she uses, praying you’ll be able to perform similar feats of syntactical magic in your next book.
And if you find yourself panicking as you Google “jellyfish blooms” late into the night—like I still do— let me reassure you that there’s enough hope at the end of this book that it will sustain you even in the face of things we can’t control, like loss or jellyfish.
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