“If people were silent, they could hear the noise of their own lives better. If people were silent, it would make what they did say, whenever they chose to say it, more important. If people were silent, they could read one another’s signals, the way underwater creatures flash lights at one another, or turn their skin different colors.
“Humans are so bad at reading one another’s signals. I knew this by now.”
Some children cope with difficulties by going quiet. They shut down and you just can’t reach them or get them to respond. I’ve mentored a child who does this. She was in foster care but now is adopted and has been in a stable loving home for over 4 years now. It was only a month ago when she got upset over a small thing that she cried in front of me. I was shocked, and though I commiserated with her, I felt pretty happy that she finally felt safe enough to open up and cry. Then she talked about what was actually upsetting her. It was a golden moment.
As adults, we often forget how hard it is to be a child. We tend to remember what’s good about childhood, especially if we have safe places to grow up. But even if a child does have a safe home life, growing up is still extremely difficult. I’ve seen smart children who’ve had wonderful lives completely undone by the pressures and changes of adolescence. Often, it’s girls who suddenly become objects of ridicule because their interests and intelligence make them stand out. I see girls dumb themselves down to fit in and be “cute.”
So I’m extremely glad to have the book The Thing About Jellyfish, by Ali Benjamin, (Little, Brown, and Company, 2015) to share with kids who are hitting that hard phase in life.
Suzy Swanson is a very smart, somewhat obsessive girl who loves science and the natural world. She has a best friend, Franny, who has always bolstered her and listened to her, even though everyone else thinks Suzy is a chatterbox. In a letter to Franny, Suzy writes:
“My parents have a word for what I do – constant-talking, like that is a single word – and they explain to me that it is important to let others talk, too. …But you like it when I tell you things. You don’t need me to ask questions. You have never once called what I do constant-talking.”
Then sixth grade and middle school happens. Franny becomes infatuated with the pretty, popular girls. She tries to bring Suzy along, but Suzy has no interest in make-up, or trying to tame her frizzy hair, or boys, or being cute. She wants Franny to stay the same, but Franny is growing away from her. Their relationship becomes contentious and cruel. Suzy one-ups Franny after she plays a prank on her.
And then the unthinkable happens. Franny drowns while on summer vacation. Suzy’s last memory of Franny is the horrible thing Suzy did to Franny. The fact of her death, the fact of Suzy’s own cruelty, the inability to undo any of it, shuts Suzy up.
She retreats into silence to escape her grief. She stops talking for months and has to go to counseling, where she never talks. Her mind, though, is still working away. She becomes obsessed with jellyfish. She’s convinced that Franny succumbed to a jellyfish sting. She becomes obsessed with how many people are stung by jellyfish every minute, how jellyfish are taking over the oceans as temperatures warm. But she also finds a great deal of wonder in how jelly fish live, of how one is deadly, but another is immortal.
Suzy is such a well-developed character. She is flawed. She uses silence, deceit, and theft to further what she sees as a mission to find a way to prove a jellyfish was responsible for Franny’s death. She is also still grieving the break-up of her parents’ marriage.
“I know everything exists because tiny specks, too small to see, move through an invisible field the way a pair of boots moves through mud, getting heavier as they go.
“And since my parents split up, I have begun to wonder if this is happening to me, too: if I am getting more weighed down, harder to lift, as I move through the world.”
But because she remains connected to the wonders of the world through her studies of nature, and an exceptionally smart and kind science teacher, she finds her way to acceptance and redemption.
In her silence she learns all the tentacles of forgiveness, mortality, and compassion. You don’t get the feeling that Suzy will ever be an average girl, but that she will be a multi-faceted and amazing person.
I spent a day with this book and read it until the end. I look forward to a second reading to savor it more. Benjamin’s writing is engaging, compelling, and poetic. Suzy tells her story in different perspectives which Benjamin handles with ease. Her sense of wonder is apparent in the way the story unfolds.
Ali Benjamin grew up outside New York City, in a rickety house that neighbors thought was haunted. As a child, she caught bugs and frogs. The Thing About Jellyfish emerged from her fascination with the natural world. She is the co-writer of HIV-positive teen Paige Rawl’s coming of age memoir Positive. She also co-wrote Tim Howard’s bestseller, The Keeper. She’s a member of the New England Science Writers and lives in rural Massachusetts.
Here’s a video of Benjamin talking about the book:
This book was one of the finalists for the Children’s Choice Book Debut Author Award. You can see all the finalists for the Children’s Choice Book Awards here: http://www.cbcbooks.org/ninth-annual-childrens-choice-book-awards-finalists-announced/#.VyfJ5jArKM-
This post is a part of Children’s Book Week, May 2 – 8. I’ll post on children’s books every day this week. To find more great children’s books, check out their website. They have a list of events going on all over the country, maybe one near you. You can find links to their facebook and twitter pages.
May you find a children’s book to celebrate today.