Wednesday, September 19, 2018

The Benefits of Being an Octopus by Ann Braden

For seventh grader Zoey Albro, living in Vermont in a trailer with her mother, three siblings, step father Lenny and his father Frank, life really isn't easy. It's her job to get Bryce and Aurora up, dressed and out for school every morning. And after school, Zoey has to care for  them while her mother works in a low wage job waiting tables in pizza shop, then make sure the kids get dinner, eaten in their bedroom so they don't get in Lenny's way or disturb Frank's constant TV watching, and get them to bed, and hope sleep isn't interrupted one of by Bryce's nightmares that began after they moved in with Lenny.

Zoey's dislike for Lenny is no secret, but it is mutual. She hates that he constantly berates her mother for doing things wrong, ignores her, Bryce and Aurora, and only paying attention to his son Hector. And now, Lenny has lost his job.

So, even though she would like to do it, there just isn't any time for Zoey to work on her homework, not even the latest assignment - a debate prep packet on the topic Which animal is best? That's easy for Zoey, who knows that being an octopus is the best, and she already has all the information she needs to support her argument. She often thinks that if she had all those arms, she could do so much more to make life easier for the kids and her mom. Besides, an octopus has the ability to camouflage itself when it needs to hide, something she would really like to be able to do, especially at school.

Where her teachers are always disappointed that she hasn't done the required work, her only friends are Silas, a loner who loved to go hunting with his father, and Fuchsia, a girl with her own serious issues. Zoey never speaks in class, preferring to try to be invisible, and yet, always subjected to bullying by the other kids in school.

Filling in the debate prep may have been an easy task for Zoey, but then, of course, she would have to speak in front of the class. First, she forgets her packet, then when given another chance, she lies and says she has forgotten it again. When her Social Studies teacher, Ms. Rochambeau, discovers the Zoey's debate prep packet in the trash and reads it, she begins to see her in a different light and insists that she join the debate team, even offering to drive her to where the school bus lets Bryce and Aurora off in the afternoon so she can still babysit them.

At first, Zoey has not interest in participating in the debate club, and having to work with who make no secret of what they think of her. But the more she learns about the art of debating, the more she begins to understand the way her stepfather has been manipulating and verbally abusing her mother and why her once strong, independent mother has become cowed by his treatment.

But can Zoey put her new debating skills into practice and convince her mother to leave Lenny and their toxic relationship before it is too late? And where would they go?

I had a hard time collecting my thoughts about this novel. Certainly, from a teacher's perspective, I thought it was great - here was a teacher who looked beyond the obvious and found the real Zoey, a girl who needed support, encouragement, but mostly validation.

The Benefits of Being a Octopus is told from Zoey's point of view, in the first person present. Her narration is open and honest, at times, brutally honest. Zoey is a smart, strong, courageous girl with way too many responsibilities put on her shoulders by the (supposed) adults around her, who should have been taking care of her, not the other way around.

Braden has put Zoey in a difficult life - she and her family seem to have alway lived in poverty. She's never known her father, though Bryce and Aurora's father was in the picture for a while before leaving, and only baby Hector belongs to Lenny. Clothes and toys are bought second hand and Zoey's mom is eligible for public assistance. This is real realistic fiction and Braden's writing is as hard-hitting and matter of fact as Zoey's story.

And yet, it is also a book with a message of hope. It would take a lot of strength to get up every morning and face Zoey's day, but she does it without too much resentment but a lot of humiliation. Gradually, thanks to the rules of debate and Ms. Rochambeau's belief in her, that changes and Zoey can see her way out of the terrible circumstances they are in because of being so poor and dependent on Lenny for a roof over their heads.

Zoey may have wished she has eight arms so she could get everything done herself, but in the end, it is a combination of her own resilience and determination, and the arms of those around her reaching out that ultimately help her find her way in this well crafted coming of age novel.

My only regret: The Benefits of Being an Octopus is a book I wish I had had to share with my students when I was teaching 4th grade in the Bronx.

You can download a very useful Educator's Guide for this book on Ann Braden's website HERE

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

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