Some books have you hooked from the start, and the debut novel from Ali Benjamin offers a prime example … even if the last thing I reckon I’d want on the end of a hook would be a jellyfish.
The title certainly reeled me in, and while this reader never had any great hankering to study marine biology, perhaps that’s because I never had an inspirational science teacher to fully engage me in the subject – like Mrs Turton in The Thing About Jellyfish. More to the point, on this evidence I’d say the author has similar qualities, with an ability to tidily translate her way with words into accessible children’s fiction us adults can appreciate too.
The scientific approach to a novel has largely passed me by before now, but Ali’s approach offers us fresh perspective. It also helps when you can truly identify with a character, and from the off I felt I knew and largely understood Suzy Swanson, a likeable 12-year-old coming to terms with the sudden death of her best friend, Franny Jackson.
We might soon question Suzy’s real motive in doubting the official verdict on strong swimmer Franny’s drowning on holiday in Maryland, but not once does she lose us as we follow her more logical approach to understanding the tragedy – unwilling to accept ‘sometimes things just happen’ and trying to piece together events the only way she feels she can – via the power of learning and research.
It’s a school trip to an aquarium that puts her on the road to what she sees as a more feasible explanation, even if we soon realise that’s not the whole story for a girl desperate to turn the page and get through the Eugene Field Memorial Middle School. What’s more, we have an exclusive peak into Suzy’s thought process, seeing as she’s opted for selective mutism, vowing to keep herself to herself and enter a pledge of silence until she has something concrete to share.
Suzy’s tale is told to some extent in the format of a science lab report, but we get to read between the lines as she aims to make sense of it all, immersing herself into extra-curricular studies to find the evidence that will convince everyone what she feels really happened out there in the water – however unlikely her theory might seem.
It’s as much a tale of how friendships change as we grow apart and are drawn to others though – the politics of the playground. Don’t think for a minute it’s a girls’ book either. Dedicated to ‘curious kids everywhere’, It should resonate with all readers who have been that age or thereabouts at some stage, irrespective of gender. It’s quirky too, and despite the dark premise there’s humour and plenty of warmth on offer down in South Grove, Massachusetts.
As Suzy aims to prove the interconnectedness (is that even a word?) of all those telling factors, she finds potential help via a kindred spirit halfway across the world, a high-profile scientist in Queensland, Australia. Taking that scholarly line, she explores ’cause and effect’ – in this instance how changes to one part of her world can lead others to change, at a time in Suzy’s life when everything seems to be shifting – not least as she copes with her parents’ separation and those troublesome friendship issues.
Meanwhile, a child psychologist who she refers to as ‘Dr Legs’ (‘the doctor I could talk to but would rather not’) does all she can to help Suzy, but Miss Swanson is adamant she’s doing okay on her own, even if that’s likely to involve some mighty big steps.
I won’t go into where she’s heading, but as Mrs Turton tells her pupils, ‘we learn as much from failures as we do from successes’, Suzy getting to redefine her personal relationships while reflecting on just where things went awry with Franny. In so doing, she proves to be someone we can all learn from, wise beyond her years and unclouded in her thinking.
In her author’s note, Ali – a member of the New England Science Writers and a busy working mum who likes to ‘teach kids about storytelling and writing’ – acknowledges others who have gone before her with that scientific approach to understanding the bigger picture. A prime example is Bill Bryson, with Ali giving credence to his explanation of ‘the origins of the universe, the natural history of our planet, and the astonishing fact of our own existence’. There’s a definite correlation there too, and what Bill does for the non-scientifically-minded reader (I’ll include myself in that category) she replicates in the form of engaging children’s fiction.
Like a good teacher, Ali helps us understand not only Suzy and her grief but the wider subject itself, helping us see the world through her main character’s eyes in a relatively easy yet enriching read. In so doing, Ali Benjamin gives science a good name, and word has it that her story is already set to be brought to life by Reese Witherspoon’s production company Pacific Standard Films.
Oh, and I got to learn a fair bit about jellyfish along the way too.
The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin is published in hardback (Macmillan Children’s Books, £10.99) on March 16th, 2016, available from all good bookstores and various online outlets in the UK. And for more about Ali, head to her website here.