On the heartbeat of middle schoolers

Thing About Jellyfish, by Ali Benjamin (2015)

Opening Line: “A jellyfish, if you watch it long enough, begins to look like a heart beating.”

Suzy is starting 7th grade and everything is different from last year. When she began middle school, she had the best best friend, Franny, and together, they were content to be nothing like the popular girls. But now Franny is dead. And Suzy hasn’t spoken aloud in weeks.

Suzy’s mother told her that Franny drowned at the beach. But Suzy knows that Franny is a wonderful swimmer, and there must be another explanation. After a lonely class trip to the aquarium where Suzy visits the jellyfish exhibit, she has a new hypothesis: Franny was stung by a Irukandjii, a miniature jelly that causes its victims excruciating pain and a distinct feeling of impending doom. And now she just has to prove it.

Structured like a science lab report (background, procedure, results, conclusions, etc.), Suzy tries to keep her life in order, but this heart-breaker of a tale goes way beyond the scientific method. Flashing back and forth between her 6th grade year and current time, we get the story of Suzy and Franny’s dissolving friendship as the girls enter middle school. As a librarian in a middle school, and a former middle school student myself, I could see the honesty and truth represented here. Friendships definitely change in middle school. Figuring out what to do after the death of a friendship can be every bit as difficult as the death of a friend. This is was Ali Benjamin gets so right.

Touching for all of us who have been through this, and cathartic for those who are going through it right now. What a beautiful debut. Can’t wait to see what she does next.

2.5 stars


I Lava This One!

Eruption! Volcanoes and the Science of Saving People, by Elizabeth Rusch; photographs by Tom Uhlman (2013)

Opening line: “On the northern tip of the Andes Mountains in Colombia, the majestic Nevado del Ruis rises 17,680 feet (5,389 meters) into the sky, its summit draped year-round with snow and ice.”

In this first line we get to meet one of our major characters of Eruption!: a terrifying volcano. There are several more profiled in this volume of the Scientists in the Field series (my favorite science non-fiction series for middle schoolers), each of them more terrible than the last. When this particular giant erupted in 1985, it ended up killing 23,000 people before all was said and done, destroying multiple villages in its path. Today, scientists around the globe are working to prevent such atrocities by developing ways to help predict such explosions, helping to get people out of the way of the ash, molten rock, and mudslides in time, but with more than 1 billion people living in these danger zones, this is quite a task.

I can’t ever say enough about this series of books. I love each and every one of them I read. They engage me with ideas (animals, catastrophes, world problems) I know little about and bring them to life with such drama, incredible photographs, and real human stories. They show that the term “scientist” is incredibly varied and there are all sorts of jobs students could grow up to have, including ones that haven’t been dreamed up yet. It also helps that these books are always under 100 pages, making them approachable, despite being CHOCK full of new information. Gosh I love them. If I see the “Scientists in the Field” label on the edge of the spine, I’m probably going to buy it for my library, and I’m probably not going to regret it.

2.5 stars