Just before seventh grade begins, Suzy gets word that her former best friend died in a drowning accident. Unable to process the news, she channels her guilt over her last hate-filled encounter with Franny, turning to silence to cope. She refuses to accept her mother’s explanation that, sometimes, things just happen, shuts everybody out and focuses on the cause of the accident. Franny was an excellent swimmer, she couldn’t have just drowned. It couldn’t just happen. There must be a reason.
Suzy is an outsider in grade six and seven. A personality that was fascinating as a child becomes embarrassing and odd to her friend as the girls hit their pre-teen years. Her interest in science, in why things are as they are, in collecting and diseminating as much information about anything that strikes her fancy puts her at odds with the former tomboy who is starting to check out her reflection in the mirror, wear cute clothes, giggle over boys, and brush her hair between classes.
Suzy’s incredible six month journey through her grief tackles so much more than “merely” the death of a best friend. Author Ali Benjamin uses the process to delve into the evolution that children go through in middle school, from child to pre-teen to teen. What happens when your best friend becomes one of the giggling girls more concerned with clothes and hair than chasing rainbows, what happens when you don’t change at the same pace, what happens when you search for your place in the world, and aren’t sure if it is where you want to be? How do you handle the changes?
Benjamin perfectly captures this sense of isolation. Suzy’s attempts to bring order to chaos through immersing herself in fact and research, her commitment to silence, her need to control her environment, even her eventual acceptance, ring true to life.
The secondary characters also breathe realism into the story. Justin’s struggle with ADHD and his explanation of it to Suzy, Sarah’s approach to Suzy at the dance, Franny’s distance and cruelty as she tries to grow up, are all echoes of most middle school years.
Scientific facts about jellyfish and real life characters from the scientific community and pop culture are woven throughout the story, adding to the feeling that you may have lived this story yourself.
This middle grade novel does a fantastic job of tackling a difficult subject for any age. It must be read with a box of tissues (or two) beside you, and your sarcastic husband in another room. Suzy’s journey back to life, along with her discovery that not all change is bad, is simultaneously heartbreaking and hopeful.
The Thing About Jellyfish was published September 22nd 2015 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.