The Thing About Jellyfish/Ali Benjamin: a major new voice for younger readers (for all readers)

Friday, July 10, 2015

When Jessica Shoffel speaks, I listen.

She's the sort of person who makes you feel seen. The sort who, as a Penguin publicist, didn't just oversee the campaigns of mega-watt writers like Laurie Halse Anderson and Jacquelyn Woodson, but also took time to read my novel Small Damages, to tell me how the story worked within her, and to create a glorious press release and campaign on its behalf. The sort who stood with me through a difficult time. The sort who found me alone at the Decatur, GA, book festival and included me in conversations, in a dinner, in a memorable hour with Tomie dePaulo. The sort who makes time in a hugely busy life to reach out to young people who have experienced loss, to run marathon races on behalf of medical research, and to talk to a dear family member, Kelsey, about what it is like to work among books. Jess is smart and gracious and kind and hard working. She is there. She is present. She is with you; she is for you. She is a rare kind of sisterhood.

And so when Jess wrote a few weeks ago to tell me about a book she had just read in her new role as Director of Publicity for Little Brown and Company's Books for Young Readers, when she said it was my kind of book, I didn't for one instant doubt her. Can I send it to you? she asked. Of course, I said.

And so it arrived. And so I have read it.

This book—this gorgeous, intelligent, moving, seamless, award-destined, Andrea Spooner edited book—is a debut middle grade novel by Ali Benjamin called The Thing About Jellyfish. Everything about this story enwraps, engages, enraptures. Its frizzy-haired, science-leaning, universe-scanning narrator who has lost her former best friend. Its obsession with the jellies that bloom incessantly within our seas, leave the big whales hungry, endanger us with their undying stings. Its child-hearted hopes and its big-minded mix of science and mystery. Its neat division into paper parts—purpose, hypothesis, straight through to conclusion. Its language—just the right bright, the right curious. (I could quote from every single line and prove that to you; Ali Benjamin never writes anything less than a wonderful sentence.) The science itself—impeccably (never intrusively) filtered into this story about friendship, family, school, and school teachers who care.

And then—watch—Diana Nyad appears. Diana Nyad, the endurance swimmer who refused to give up on her dream. The endurance swimmer who braved the countless jellyfish stings and made it to the other side. Symbol, hero, character. There she is, in this most exquisite book.

(For more on Diana and her relationship with my friend and agent Amy Rennert, read here. And look for Diana's much buzzed memoir, Find a Way, out in October).

In this summer of contemplation, this summer of weighing the odds, of wondering through the writing again, of maybe or maybe not trying again, of not knowing, it is a glorious thing to be reminded of what is possible with books. The thing about The Thing About is what says about what possible is.


Victoria Marie Lees said...

Thank you for this, Beth. Another book to add to my precarious stack by my bedside, which includes three more of yours. Time...all I need is time.

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