This middle grade debut is getting a lot of attention for its science-based themes, its nuanced portrayal of a young girl coming of age, and its status as a National Book Award finalist.
I’d like to dig a bit deeper here and analyze how Ali Benjamin pulls off her protagonist Suzy’s lurch toward young adulthood––and what aspiring authors can learn from The Thing About Jellyfish.
1. Real is more important than likeable.
I’ve touched on this topic before, especially in my post on Erin Entrada Kelly’s Blackbird Fly, but The Thing About Jellyfish was such a good example that it bears repeating.
As Suzy grieves the death of her friend––and the disintegration of their relationship before that––she’s not always easy to like. She’s cruel to her parents at times and generally uncooperative as many people try to help her cope with the loss. She even pushes away a few kids at school who try to strike up a friendship.
All of this makes the book hard to read at certain points––but that’s because Suzy feels so real. I felt like I knew Suzy, and growing up I did know many kids like her: kids who don’t quite fit in with the others. Kids who are coping with stuff they just don’t have the tools for, yet.
Benjamin made a brave choice in making Suzy, at times, “unlikeable.” Suzy’s awkwardness, her obsessiveness, her dwelling and her deep loneliness, are a huge part of what makes Suzy a nuanced character, and the only one who could play this role, in this book.
Did Suzy frustrate me at times? Yes. But I also wanted to reach out and hug her on every page.
2. Your structure must serve your story.
The structure was my favorite aspect of this book. Suzy develops a hypothesis about her former friend’s death-by-drowning: that it was actually caused by a jellyfish sting. The book follows the scientific method as Suzy tries to prove her hypothesis.
In varying scenes that include events in the present day, flashbacks to before her friend’s death, and short chapters bulging with jellyfish-and-ocean-related facts, Suzy begins to learn about herself, and her grief, too. Eventually she finds that clear-cut answers may not come as easily as she hopes.
This framing device works really well. Instead of feeling gimmicky or forced, it enhances the narrative, as Suzy’s discoveries about jellyfish and about herself and her grief weave together beautifully. In one especially poignant moment, Suzy observes that it’s often the most fragile animals that are poisonous. The juxtaposition with her own lashing out is brilliant.
Jellyfish is a good reminder to search for novel ways to structure your story––and to always make sure a given structure is serving the story, and not the other way around.
3. Don’t be afraid to stretch an age range.
Jellyfish is solidly upper middle grade, with a voice that’s quite mature and reflective when compared to to many MG books. I’m sure it’s being shelved as YA in libraries and schools as we speak, but like the work of Rebecca Stead, Cynthia Kadohata, and Thanhha Lai, this is very much a “middle school” book.
I have no idea whether Benjamin felt tempted to age her protagonist up or down, or force the book into the typical MG or YA sweet spot––as a debut kidlit author, she may have––but I’m really glad that she stuck to her instincts and kept the book as it is, with all its middle school weirdness and puberty moments and coming-of-age fear and wonder and angst. Middle school readers will find an emotional rawness here that reflects their own lives. In reading Jellyfish, they’ll feel less alone.
And a bonus quote…
Finally, I called this out in my Goodreads review and I can’t help but repeat this beautiful excerpt here.
If I wasn’t already sold on Benjamin’s lovely, quirky debut, this line clinched it:
“Humans may be newcomers to this planet. We may be plenty fragile. But we’re also the only ones who can decide to change.”
It’s 2016, kidlit writers! Take that as your inspiration, and go forth and write lovely things.
Want to chat writing, kidlit, and more great MG and YA titles? Find me on Twitter at @beckererine.