Ali Benjamin’s debut novel, The Thing About Jellyfish, won’t be in bookstores until September 22, but the buzz has been building for months. The Thing About Jellyfish received starred reviews from Kirkus, School Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, Booklist. The IndieNext Kids list will feature it as one of their top ten picks for fall – and it’s on every list of notable fall releases I’ve seen.
This weekend, thanks to my friends at Buttonwood Books and Toys, I was able to borrow an advance reading copy. Benjamin’s novel is over 300 pages long, and I read it in two sittings. After reading the last page, I sat on the deck quietly, hesitant to break the book’s spell – and overwhelmed by its wisdom, beauty, and heart.
Suzy Swanson is a twelve-year-old girl who is struggling to understand why, at the end of 6th grade, everyone around her seems to be changing – especially her closest friend, Franny Jackson. Hurting from Franny’s decision to join a popular group of girls, Suzy immerses herself more deeply in her commitment to science and facts. But during the summer before they start 7th grade, Franny unexpectedly drowns and Suzy retreats into a world of silence.
On a school trip to an aquarium, Suzy becomes convinced that Franny died from the sting of a jellyfish and she sets out to learn everything she can about them. “I could tell you a lot about jellyfish – more than you’ve probably ever thought to wonder,” Suzy reports. She is determined to solve the mystery of Franny’s death and relieve her crippling guilt about something she did that damaged their friendship.
Inspired by her understanding and caring science teacher, Suzy approaches her study of jellyfish – and Franny’s death – using the scientific method. She states her purpose, explains her procedure, does thorough research, and presents her findings. Suzy has the support of her divorced parents, her brother and his boyfriend, and a new friend at school, but until she navigates the rocky path through her grief, she is unable to let them help her. Ultimately, Suzy understands the hard truth that “sometimes things just happen.”
This is a book that can be recommended to adults, as well as to thoughtful young readers, ages 11 and over.
Recently, I read an article on The Atlantic’s website by Egyptian author, Alaa Al Aswany, called “How Literature Inspires Empathy,” and I copied this passage:
“I define fiction this way: It’s life on the page, similar to our daily life, but more significant, deeper, and more beautiful. What is significant in our daily lives should be visible in the novel, and deeper because we live many moments which are superficial—not deep, not profound. The novel should be more significant, more profound, and more beautiful, than real life.”
There are lots of middle grade novels that inspire empathy, but here are five recommendations:
The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate
El Deafo by Cece Bell
Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper
Wonder by R.J. Palacio
The Red Pencil by Andrea Davis Pinkney