Sunday, September 27, 2020

MMGM: My Life in the Fish Tank by Barbara Dee

On the first day of school, the four Manning kids line up for their Annual Kid Photo, just like always. But by November, things were no longer "just like always" when the family gets a phone call that college student Gabriel Manning is in the hospital after having a car accident. Not only that, but Gabriel has also been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and his siblings - Scarlett, 16, Zinia called Zinny, 12, and Aiden, 8, are asked to keep it private.

After he is transferred from the hospital to a residential care facility,  it doesn't take long for Gabriel and his diagnosis to take over the lives of all the Mannings. Mom takes a leave of absence from her teaching job and spends her time on the phone dealing with Gabriel's situation. Dad begins staying at work longer and longer, rarely even eating dinner with his family. Scarlett's moodiness increases, pushing Zinny out of her life and the often out the room they share, and Aiden becomes obsessed with the How To project his teacher has assigned his class. And Zinny, who has a real interest in marine biology, begins to hang out in the lab with her science teacher, Ms. Molina, during lunch as her relationship with friends Maisie and Kailani begins to deteriorate because she refuses to talk to them about Gabriel. 

When Zinny is invited to join the Lunch Club held by the guidance counselor, Mr. Patrick, Maisie is adamant that she not go, but Zinny decides to go just once. Then, Ms. Molina tells Maisie she can only hang out and set up the fish tanks for the class crayfish study if she also goes to Lunch Club. Once her friendship with Maisie and Kailani ends, Zinny figures why not? There, she discovers that she isn't the only one with family troubles, problems and issues. And slowly, Zinny even begins to become friends with some of the Lunch Club kids while still keeping Gabriel's bipolar diagnosis a secret. 

Meanwhile, things at home aren't much better. Zinny finally takes things into her own hands and begins to buy groceries and make dinner for her family. She also tries to help Aiden with his How To project by leaving humorous suggestions for him, but he can't decide what to do and the teacher rejects his most outlandish suggestions. 

The Mannings occasionally visit Gabriel as a family, but Scarlett refuses to go. Then Zinny discovers that Scarlett is seeing a counselor and has told friends about Grabriel's bipolar diagnosis. In the middle of all this, Ms. Molina recommends Zinny for a place in a competitive camp to do marine biology research for four weeks - all expenses paid. 

There is a lot happening here, including Zinny that worries, understandable so, that she might also be bipolar. Can the people in her life, including her new friends in Lunch Club and Mr. Patrick, help Zinny move on with her life without feeling like she is betraying Gabriel?

My Life in the Fish Tank is a family story that looks at how mental illness is not just about the person with the diagnosis, but impacts the family in all ways. I liked that it was narrated by Zinny, whom I thought old enough to observe what she sees and feels, but young and inexperienced enough to not always understand it all. 

I thought Dee really captured the way the Manning parents shut down. So often when something like mental illness happens within a family, parents seem to forget they have other children who still need them. Zinny's parents are clearly depressed and kudos to Scarlett for getting her mother to go to counseling. It is interesting how quickly the family becomes isolated from friends and neighbors, and then from each other, even though they are all concerned and worried about Gabriel. Should people be open about mental illness when it happens to a family member? Each family must decide that for themselves. Family dynamics differ and what may be ok for one may not be for another family.

I particularly likes Dee's treatment of time. It does seem that when bad things happen, time does funny things. As Zinny says: " thing you notice, when those bad things happen, is that calendars and clocks stop making any sense...It was like, after it happened, we were in a different time zone from everybody else." And Zinny's narration does jump back and forth in time, as she recalls different times she observed Gabriel's bipolar behavior - times when he was feeling on top of the world and taking dangerous risks, other times when he was depressed and sleeping too much. 

Barbara Dee really knows how to handle some very difficult topics, like sexual abuse (Maybe He Just Likes You) and mental illness, but in the end, she always offers hope to the reader that when life turns you upside down, with help, you can turn right side up again.  

You can find an excellent reading guide for My Life in the Fish Tank HERE 

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was an eARC gratefully received from the author.
Be sure to check out the other Marvelous Middle Grade Monday offerings, 
now being carried on by Greg at Always in the Middle.


  1. Glad you liked this one. I've seen it around and was curious. It sounds like it accurately portrays the stresses that one child's mental health issues can have on a family and the other kids in the family who don't get enough attention.

  2. I like how the author tackles topics not seen very often in middle grade books. Her take on sexual abuse and mental illness are themes young readers want to know about. I enjoyed both these books and thanks for featuring this newest on MMGM and for the link to Barbara's guest post last year on MAYBE HE JUST LIKES ME.

  3. There is no excuse for parents forgetting other children, so this is something that will ALWAYS make me angry. I think it is an unfair portrayal of parents who have difficulties. You are right about not everyone wanting to be open about mental health issues within a family. Also, about square dancing-- we were allowed to wear our street clothes, which may have been one of the reasons I liked it!

  4. The title on this novel is perfect and speaks volumes as to what happens in Zinny's family. But, it is an important story about the toll mental health issues takes on other members of the families. Then layer on keeping it all a secret. And Zinny having to grow up to fast and take on parental responsibilities. Important to share stories like "My Life in the Fish Tank" and I will be checking the library for a copy. I'll be sharing a book about mental illness in a week or so -- such an important topic right now. Thank you!

  5. You make a wonderful case for this book! I think one of the hardest parts about mental illness is the fear of talking about it and incurring judgment (of oneself or the family)—I'm glad books like this exist to remind people that talking about things is essential to overcoming them. Thank you for the thoughtful review!

  6. I keep seeing this book. I will have to check it out. Thanks for the review.

  7. I'm going to put this one on my TBR list. Mental illness does affect whole families, and isolation is a huge problem. It sounds like this book can help kids navigate these kinds of family issues. Thanks for telling me about this book.


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