Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Thing About The Thing About Jellyfish ...

... is that it reads like a love letter to jellyfish with a story wedged in there, uncomfortably.
Way harsh, Tai?  This is the kind of book you'll either love or not love.  Ali Benjamin writes in the author's note that this book began as a paper she wrote about jellyfish that was rejected by a journal.  I understand that as an author, your creations are precious; at the same time, you need to know when to let go of an idea.  Now, the majority of readers really loved this book, and it was even shortlisted for a National Book Award.  Let me be clear: it's very well-written.  However, I'll turn that around and say that some parts were almost too perfect to be believable.

I try to be very aware, when reading and reviewing children's books, that I am not the intended audience.  However, I've noticed a trend that some children's books aren't really written for children.  They're written for adults to notice and then hand out some prizes.  I certainly don't think that all writers are mercenary in this respect; however, if your middle school character talks about the multiverse and recites box jellyfish facts, she's playing to the quirky smart outsider loner type that you'll find more in young adult or adult literary fiction.  I do wonder how many kids read this book and cried--not just the people who reviewed this on Goodreads or who nominated it for awards.  How many kids cared or sympathized with Zu?  I want to do some sort of nationwide poll to figure this out.  Let me give a quick rundown of the plot and perhaps my muddled Monday brain will make this more concrete.

Zu (short for Suzy) hasn't said a word since starting seventh grade.  Her best friend Franny died over the summer, drowned during a family trip to the ocean.  Stricken with grief and guilt, Zu convinces herself that Franny didn't just drown.  She was such a good swimmer--how could that happen?  And one day, during a field trip to an aquarium, she hits on her answer: Franny was stung by jellyfish.  Specifically, the Irukandji jelly.  Zu becomes obsessed with jellies and tracks down several jelly experts to have them confirm her suspicions that the Irukandji migrated up to the East Coast and stung her friend, causing Franny's untimely death.  

Does this sound weird to you?  Is it just me?  I know we all deal with grief individually, and sometimes oddly.  But Suzy's obsession isn't painted as being unhealthy; it's a sacred mission that she undertakes in order to solve the mystery of her friend's death.  

I enjoyed certain aspects of Benjamin's exploration of the family dynamic, but other parts felt false.  Zu's brother Aaron and his boyfriend Rocco are just ... Zu's brother and his boyfriend.  No big deal.  Her parents are divorced, but her dad clearly still wants to be part of her life.  Her parents are flummoxed by her refusal to speak, but I can't think that a parent whose child's best friend just died wouldn't recognize that their child is hurting so badly that she cannot speak.  What is wrong with these people?  

And then there's middle school.  The portrayal is accurate; however, I think that Zu's attitude and the author's treatment of what troubles her only add to the problem.  Even though Zu and Franny have been best friends forever, Zu doesn't understand why Franny starts acting differently in middle school.  Like saying she has a crush on a boy, and checking her clothes in the mirror, and trying to tame Zu's wild hair (note: I get it.  Zu has frizzy hair.  I do not need to hear this in every other chapter, thanks) with "product."  That's totally NORMAL behavior for middle schoolers!  Zu feels like she's being abandoned and that Franny is turning into a mean girl.  There's this undercurrent of slut-shaming that I didn't like.  Zu's disapproval of Franny's skirt length, for example.  Or popping her hip around boys.  In her world, and in this book, there is a strict divide between the weirdos, who are deep and thoughtful humans, and the popular kids, who are mean airheads.    Nobody helps Franny understand that things change, and that people can't be friends forever.  Things can't always stay the same.  

In fact, Zu is not the most sympathetic character.  She freezes urine and puts it in Franny's locker as a "helpful hint" that Franny is becoming too self-absorbed.  I beg your pardon.  How does a person's mind even go there?  Zu rationalizes that since urine is sterile, it's all good.  

Zu's fixation with certain topics, her constant mathematical calculations, and her inability to make small talk all fit her into the book mold of "ASD kid."  Maybe she's on the spectrum, maybe she's not.  But it's not okay to excuse her behavior by implying that she's ASD.  Even though the readers are meant to believe that Zu's punishment is her guilt over Franny's death, she never really has to confess what she's done.  At the end of the book, what has she learned?  Well, she's learned more than I ever cared to know about jellyfish.  She learned that you can't go to a foreign country without a visa.  She made a new friend who maybe like-likes her but maybe not and ugh.  Cue the triumphant music as she walks through the doors to her first school dance.

Everyone was saying that this book made them sob and ripped their heart open and other dramatic confesssions of that ilk.  Am I made of stone?  I felt nothing while reading this except frustration with Zu.  Did I miss the point?  I never discount that as a possibility.  But there is more attention given to Zu's ability to memorize interesting facts about jellyfish and muse about how our choices can give birth to multiple universes and all sorts of quantum mechanics than there is to developing her as a person.  And again I circle back to: how many kids will love this book because of Suzy's (admittedly eloquent) discussions of our atomic makeup or biodiversity or the science topic du jour?  If I'm wrong and everyone who loves this book is twelve years old, then mea culpa.

I don't feel like I have a proper way to end this, because I don't feel much at all.  Disappointed, I feel that.  But otherwise?  "Meh" would be an accurate verbal response.

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