The Loss of a Friend Isn’t Remotely Scientific: Ali Benjamin’s The Thing About Jellyfish

BookendsLynn: A word of advice: when you sit down to read Ali Benjamin’s The Thing About Jellyfish, make sure you have a pencil and paper. This is a book that is packed with sentences you want to write down and remember. You won’t have trouble remembering Suzy Swanson and her story, though. jellyfishThe pain Suzy carries with her will break your heart and her path toward healing will salve the wound. This truly is one of those books that will make you laugh and cry and . . . search for a pencil.

Suzy is grieving the loss of her best friend, Franny Jackson. In fact, Suzy has lost Franny twice, first when the two grew apart socially and then in a drowning accident. Suzy can’t understand the demise of their friendship or her friend’s death, especially given that Franny was a strong swimmer. Suzy’s mother tells her that “sometimes things just happen,” but Suzy won’t accept that:

“Sometimes things just happen is not an explanation. It is not remotely scientific.”

Suzy understands facts and logic and science. She doesn’t understand the mystery of emotions, the minefield of adolescence or even the puzzle of small talk. Overwhelmed by her own feelings, Suzy decides first not to talk at all and secondly to solve the conflicting facts of Franny’s death. Suzy forms a hypothesis: Franny was killed by an encounter with a highly poisonous jellyfish. Benjamin cleverly uses the scientific method as a structure for this deeply affecting story, reflecting Suzy’s attempts to apply science to the heartbreak that is overwhelming her. Suzy’s voice is painfully authentic and I cared for her from the first sentence. Her journey is deeply touching and ultimately hopeful. The conclusion, like so many things in life, isn’t what Suzy first set out to prove but is definitely life-changing.

Suzy’s first loss of her friend is almost as painful
to her as the second, permanent loss.

Cindy: Lynn usually hates sad books so I take note when she recommends one. Books that make me cry and laugh are favorites for me and for many of my middle-school students. We really need a name for that subgenre of fiction—ideas, anyone? In addition to The Thing About Jellyfish, there have been other books in the last couple of years about girls deeply interested in science, from Julie Chibbaro’s Deadly (2011), about the scientific investigation to track down Typhoid Mary, to Jacqueline Kelly’s Newbery Honor winner The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate (2009). Former Booklist intern Hannah Nesbat highlighted a list of these in “Girl Scientists in Middle Grade Fiction.” Add a few test tubes, a microscope, a lab journal, and a collection of these fictional titles and their nonfiction counterparts and you’ve got an easy book display. Hmm . . . I need to go visit my science teachers today.

As a middle-school librarian I watch friendships shift and morph every year. Suzy’s first loss of her friend is almost as painful to her as the second, permanent loss. As clothes and actions and cafeteria seats change, Suzy is left to wonder what happened. After Franny’s attempt to “fix” Suzy’s impossible, frizzy hair, Suzy is left without the words she needs to tell her friend, “I used to like myself when I was around you, but now I’m not so sure.” Looking at Franny’s new friends, Suzy feels like “a separate species altogether.”

I have many more sticky note tabs protruding from my book, but it is better for you to discover the many memorable lines yourself. The Thing About Jellyfish was a National Book Award Finalist and has earned five starred reviews, including the one linked above from Booklist. If it hasn’t made it to the top of your to-read pile, get it there, and then get it in the hands of middle-grade readers.



About the Author:

Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan are Booklist reviewers and middle-school librarians who have chaired both ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults and the Michael L. Printz Award for YA Literature committees. Follow Bookends on Twitter at @BookendsBlog. You can also find Cindy at @cdobrez and Lynn at @482april.

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