Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin

Suzy Swanson and Franny Jackson first met in a swimming class at age five.  Franny was a girl who could already swim across the pool underwater; Suzy was the girl who  wanted to swim like Franny and be her friend.  And they were, doing everything together, happy in their own world, apart from the popular girls.  Until sixth grade…

Suddenly, Franny is hanging out with the popular girls and Suzy is left alone, still not wanting to be part of that clique.  Franny had made Suzy promise to send a strong message if she ever became like those other girls and at the end of the school year, Suzy leaves Franny an unusual message that totally backfires and the girls part  at the end of summer no longer friends.  That summer, while on vacation with her family, Franny drowns.

Unable to accept that Franny, the good swimmer, drowned, unable to accept her mother's explanation that "sometimes things just happen," Suzy wants a justifiable reason why Franny died swimming.  And she finds one that she believes is viable in the jellyfish exhibit while on a class trip to the local aquarium.

Assigned to do a research paper by her life science teacher, Mrs. Turton, Suzy begins to research jellyfish; at the same time she decides to no longer talk, effectively alienating herself from her divorced parents, her older brother and his partner, the psychologist she is taken to, the science teacher she actually likes and any new friend possibilities.   All she wants to do is prove her theory that Franny died after being fatally stung by the rare Irukandji jellyfish, found mostly in Australia, though some jellyfish researchers believe a small migration may have occurred as far away as the eastern seaboard of the United States.

It sounds like a pretty far-fetched explanation, but Suzy is determined to prove it, even if that entails lying, stealing from the people who love her, and the possibility of clandestine travel to Australia.

Since Suzy is required to do a lengthy research paper for science, The Thing About Jellyfish is framed by the seven steps of the scientific method - Purpose, Hypothesis, Background, Variables, Procedure, Results, Conclusion - according to Mrs. Turton.  At the beginning of each section, the reader is given Mrs. Turton's explanation of what each step involves, and the chapters that follow each step more or less follow it.  Sounds complicated and sometimes I felt a little overloaded with jellyfish information, but actually, it works in the story.

At the same time, the chapters within each section switch back and forth from present and how Suzy deals with her loss and her grief, to past (written in italics), so readers can see the evolution and dissolution of Suzy and Franny's friendship.  Sounds complicated, yet the switching is done seamlessly, occurring at just the right moment.

It seems that more and more young people must deal with the death of a friend in today's world and each responds to it in their own way.  What's important in books like The Thing About Jellyfish is seeing that a protagonist like Suzy may have a hard time with a death, but in the end there is the possibility of some kind of closure that enables them to go on.  And I know that sometimes kids will make up all kinds of stories about the person who has died, for whatever reason.  I was a kid when my dad suddenly passed away, and I remember that for a long time, I would tell people that he was sailing around the world on a fishing trip and wouldn't be back for a long, long time.  So Suzy's jellyfish sting hypothesis wasn't a far stretch for me to understand.

That being said, I did have some trouble with Suzy's lying and stealing, even though one could easily justify it given her state of mind and her obsessive need to explain Franny's death and her own actions on the fateful day their friendship truly ended.

I finished reading The Thing About Jellyfish the day the National Book Award finalists came out and at first, I was surprised to see it there, but that only made me think for about this debut novel and realize just what an important message there is to Suzy's story.  We each grief in our own way and that is as important for kids to know as it is for adults.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was an EARC received from NetGalley


  1. Sounds like a powerful and well written book!! Do you think it has a chance for a Newbery?

  2. Have heard wonderful things about this book and now it's moving straight to the top of my TBR list. Thanks for such a thorough review.

  3. I'll add this to my list, too. Sounds sad, powerful and unafraid.

  4. This book sounds like it may be on its way on up to bigger awards.
    However, I do like that you were through about the confusing parts.

    Thanks for sharing on the hop!


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