Goodreads: The Thing About Jellyfish
Publication Date: September 22, 2015
After Suzy Swanson’s friend dies on a family vacation to Maryland, the grown-ups tell her that some things just happen. But Suzy knows the truth: Franny was a good swimmer, the best swimmer, and there is no way she “just died” in the ocean. A school trip to the aquarium convinces Suzy of the real answer, that Franny must have been stung by a jellyfish. She sets off to prove her theory in adventures that may lead her to speak with jellyfish experts around the world, or may just lead her to a means of living with her own grief.
The Thing About Jellyfish is one of those rare books that kicked me in the heart and really reminded me of why I love to read. With a heartwarming ending, hard truths along the way, and a plethora of knowledge, The Thing About Jellyfish is the first middle grade book I have read in a while that made me feel that I learned something new.
It is so good to be able to read a fiction book and come out, not just having learned something about human nature like how to grieve, but having learned fun facts. As an avid fantasy fan, I usually come out of books knowing something about the best way to joust or to care for a horse, but little of that is new to me anymore. This book is new, and it is refreshing. I have never known so much about jellyfish, and I am loving it. Benjamin also nicely frames the facts, and Suzy’s journey coming to terms with Franny’s death, with instructions on how to do scientific research. The structure of the book follows Suzy’s purpose, hypothesis, research, conclusions, etc. Here is a book that makes science seem cool and reminds readers the best research happens when you are allowed to follow your own interests.
Not everything about the book is perfect. I think the story is somewhat disingenuous about Franny and Suzy’s relationship. [Minor spoilers ahead in this paragraph.] Franny stops being Suzy’s friend long before her death, and she does not even simply “drift away.” Franny drops Suzy intentionally. She is cruel to her, calls her weird, excludes her from gatherings with her new popular friends. The book is thus based on the strange premise that Suzy is actually grieving the death of the friend and the type of girl that Franny used to be, and maybe the potential that Franny had to become someone kind and fun again in the future. But the two are definitely not best friends at the time of Franny’s death, which makes Suzy’s obsession with her death seem a bit delusional. I know readers are supposed to recognize Suzy’s fixation on jellyfish an unusual manifestation of her grieving, but I think Benjamin skirts the issue that Suzy’s belief she and Franny were still friends at all is also a failure to face reality.
The book itself does not shirk from facing reality, however. Middle schoolers can be mean, and Benjamin accurately captures what it can feel like to be the class joke for weeks after making a middle school faux pas or how hard it can be to feel like the only girl who does cannot figure out how to dress cool. Benjamin attempts to lighten the mood by giving Suzy an older brother who empathizes, telling her middle school can be hard and there will be better times ahead. But, let’s face it, saying “Yeah, it stinks but you’ll get through it in three years” is not that uplifting. Mainly The Thing About Jellyfish reminded me that I would never want to go back to middle school myself, and I am truly sorry for anyone stuck there now. I hope younger readers will read the book and take away that, if middle school is difficult for them, they are not alone.
The Thing About Jellyfish is a thoughtful story that tackles middle school, death, and moving on. I have read several 2015 releases about children struggling to come to grief with the death of their best friend, but this one is by far the best of the batch.
“But the main thing to know is this: The whole time, from before any of those extinctions, from life’s origins until this minute, jellyfish have been there, pulsing their way across the oceans and back.
“Jellyfish are survivors. They are survivors of everything that ever happened to everyone else.”