THE THING ABOUT JELLYFISH, by Ali Benjamin
Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers in 2015
National Book Award Finalist
Suggested age range: 10-13 years
Suzy Swanson is pretty sure she knows the real reason Franny Jackson died. Everyone says that there’s no way to be certain…that sometimes things just happen. But Suzy knows there must be a better explanation—a scientific one. Haunted by the loss of her former best friend — and by a final, terrible moment that passed between them — she retreats into a silent world of her own imagination. Convinced that Franny’s death was the result of a freak jellyfish sting, she crafts a plan to prove the truth, even if it means traveling around the globe… alone. As she prepares, she learns astonishing things about the universe around her… and discovers the potential for love and hope in her own backyard.
(summary taken from Ali Benjamin’s website)
TOPICS AND THEMES: Death of a child, divorced parents, some bullying. It’s also possible that Suzy is on the autism spectrum, although this is never addressed outright.
So what did we think?
Meagan: This book is formatted as a lab report. It’s broken into sections with headings from the scientific method, which accomplishes two cool things right away. First, it sets the book apart and helps distinguish it from other contemporary realistic fiction. It also provides characterization for the narrator, Suzy. She is a scientist at heart, and so the structure of the book shows us her unique world view.
Eva: Exactly. The book is divided into sections: purpose, background, hypothesis, etc. This was probably my favorite thing because it was so clever — and perfect for this character and her story. John Truby in The Anatomy of Story would call this a designing principle:
“The designing principle is what organizes the story as a whole. It is… what makes the parts hang together organically so that the story becomes greater than the sum of its parts.”
Most stories, he says, don’t have a designing principle, but stories that do have one are original. And structuring the story in this way definitely made the book more interesting to me.
Meagan: I was not surprised to discover that the author, Ali Benjamin, is an established science writer. This book is so immersed in scientific facts and scientific thinking, it could hardly have been written by someone who was not.
Eva: Totally. Suzy knows and learns so many amazing facts about jellyfish (and many other things) — it was fun for me as the reader to learn about them, too. She is a fount of knowledge, but all the facts are written in fun, kid-accessible ways:
Mrs. Turton says that if you lived to be eighty years old, your heart would beat three billion times. I was thinking about that, trying to imagine a number that large. Three billion. Count back three billion hours and modern humans don’t exist — just wild-eyed cave people all hairy and grunting… And yet here’s your heart, doing it’s job all the time, one beat after the next, all the way up to three billion.
I was amazed at how much research went into the book, so it made sense when I realized the author started out writing an adult article about jellyfish for a science magazine. The article didn’t work out, but it eventually became this book.
Meagan: I also loved how I saw the story so clearly through Suzy’s eyes. It took a long time to get how anyone else in the story was perceiving Suzy and why. That realization made for an interesting and dramatic moment in the middle of the story, and it was almost like I got to have that realization along with the character. Very well done.
Eva: Yes, it takes a while to realize that Suzy is seen as a weirdo by many of her classmates. I cringed at one of the flashback lunchroom scenes when she’s sitting with the popular girls, but it’s a perfect example of Suzy’s personality and how she’s seen as odd to others but doesn’t quite realize it herself:
“Actually, humans have the most sweat glands on the bottom of their feet.” I say this because it’s true, and also because it’s joining the conversation.
Molly looks at me and raises a single eyebrow. That’s how I know I said the wrong thing . I try again. “Did you know that sweat is sterile when it comes out of your body?” … “It’s kind of like pee,” I say. “Everybody thinks pee is so gross, but it’s actually totally clean.”
Meagan: Yes, some of those scenes from Suzy’s daily life in sixth grade are the best. I liked the parts about Suzy and Franny’s unraveling friendship (in the flashbacks). It’s set up so that you know they used to be best friends and you also know things ended badly between them, but you don’t quite know how. Most of the dramatic tension in the book arises from watching this social disaster unfold.
Eva: I thought the flashbacks were well done, too. And I liked the way they were written — as if Suzy is talking TO Franny — because it helped set them apart from the present-day story:
You were dead for two whole days before I even knew.
The flashbacks set up a nice little mystery because we know from early on that Suzy feels guilty about something, but we don’t know what happened. We get the story parceled out to us through the flashbacks.
Meagan: I liked the present-moment plot less, although I thought the structure that interwove the two worked well. Some things in the present plot seemed a little over-dramatic. Trying not to spoil anything…I thought Suzy’s decision to stop talking, and her plan for how to address her concerns and meet with the jellyfish expert, were both unnecessarily dramatic. The lower-level drama between the friends in the flashbacks was much more believable and therefore more emotionally real and interesting to me.
Eva: I enjoyed the present-day plot. I DID question the believability of some of Suzy’s actions, particularly carrying out the plan to meet with the jellyfish expert and the strange measure she takes to “send Franny a message.” On the other hand, I sometimes thought Suzy might be on the autism spectrum, so in light of that, perhaps her actions are more believable? I’m not sure.
Meagan: I also thought the book was about 30% too long. I kept thinking I’d read to the end, and then realizing there was still more. Once I read the end of the flashback story, I think I’d had my “core emotional experience” (as Mary Kole puts it), so the rest of it just kind of felt like a long wind down.
Eva: Yeah, the climax in the flashback story was more emotionally satisfying than the present-day climax, but I think the story probably needed both. Maybe there was a different way the present-day story could have ended, though, to make it feel more organic and satisfying. In some ways, the present-day story just seemed like a vehicle for the very-cool lab report structure. But since I loved the lab report structure so much, I was able to forgive some of what the story was lacking.
THIS BOOK REMINDS US OF:
Eva: In some ways it reminded me of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime by Mark Haddon. In The Curious Incident, the narrator, Chris, is a math-obsessed teenager with autism who does not see himself or the world in the same way that everyone else does. The Curious Incident also has a designing principle. Not only is it a mystery story told by an unreliable, autistic narrator, but the chapters are numbered using prime numbers instead of consecutive numbers to mirror Chris’s interest in math. Similar to the way Jellyfish is broken up into lab report sections.
THIS BOOK IS A GREAT EXAMPLE OF:
- A book with a “designing principle”
- Alternating a present-day story with a flashback story
- A unique voice
- Unique characters, and characterization that’s shown rather than told
- Dealing with grief (death of a friend)
- Contemporary middle-grade fiction
Eva: The lab report structure, unique main character, and loads of fascinating science facts make this novel an original and interesting read.
Meagan: I would suggest this book to anyone looking to write MG, contemporary, realistic fiction. I think it’s tempting to take an easy route with contemporary, realistic fiction and tell a story about friends, family, school etc. that ultimately doesn’t stand out in any way. This book is a good example of how a contemporary, realistic story can be told with a unique designing principle and a unique first person narrator such that it really makes the story special and memorable.