Genie and Ernie’s parents are fighting all the time, so they decide to go on vacation and leave the boys with their grandparents in rural Virginia, which is surprising since their father and grandfather barely speak to one another. These city boys are stunned to discover that they are expected to do chores, including cleaning up after the dog. Although Ernie, the older brother, is super-cool and wears his sunglasses inside like their grandfather, Genie soon realizes that Grandpop wears dark glasses because he is completely blind.
On one level, this middle-grade novel can be read as a boys’ adventure story. Girl-crazy Ernie is so transparent as the kid who is trying hard to listen to all the right music and impress the confident young girl across the road. Genie is at a clumsy stage, and no matter how much he tries to do everything right, he is continually breaking things and making them worse by trying to fix them. Their wholesomeness feels almost nostalgic, although this novel also has a darker side.
There are several serious themes tucked into this semi-autobiographical story. As Jason Reynolds explained at the APA Author Dinner in Chicago, the kids whose parents were part of the African-American migration to the northern cities were so removed from their agricultural grandparents in the south that they had a hard time relating to them at all. Furthermore, Genie’s grandfather was a strong and forceful man who commanded respect. Genie does not know how to cope with the new understanding he has of Grandpop: his blindness, his anger, and his willingness to endanger others rather than admit that he may be wrong. What does a young boy do when he discovers that his hero is not perfect? Reynolds opines that he can either become bitter and angry, or he can do what he knows to be right and become a hero for someone else.
Fun, yet thoughtful, reading for boys from 10-14.
Disclaimer: I read a gift copy of this book, signed by the author. Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.
Suzy “Zu” Swanson is a science genius. By the seventh grade, she knows more than most adults about evolution, zoology, and astrophysics. So when her best friend, Franny, dies in a drowning accident, Suzy refuses to accept this news and searches for another explanation. When her class goes to the aquarium, Suzy wanders off and finds herself in the jellyfish room, where she reads that the Irukandji jellyfish sting is fatal, and that they sting all the time! Suzy becomes obsessed with the Irukandji and sets out to prove that it was the true cause of Franny’s death, a goal which is made all the more difficult because of her sudden elective mutism. Suzy is keeping a secret. She doesn’t want anyone to know that she and Franny had grown apart over the past year, or that Suzy had done something shocking that – she only realized later— had hurt Franny very much. She couldn’t have known that that was the last time she would ever see her.
Structured like a science project, The Thing About Jellyfish is a heartbreaking exploration of friendship and the changes that life brings to all of our relationships. Zu went through puberty later than her friend, and so she did not understand why Franny was suddenly interested in clothes and boys. Zu’s parents divorced at the same time that Franny changed, so Suzy felt that no one could be trusted, although all of the adults in the novel are portrayed as caring individuals. Her science teacher is fun and brilliant, and her brother, Aaron, is in a long-term relationship with another man, Rocco, both of whom love Suzy. Her dad continues to be a loving father, even though he moves out of the house. Suzy’s flashbacks to her younger friendship with Franny reminded me of Norah Jones’ song, “Seven Years,” a sweet, innocent time before little girls become so terribly conscious of themselves.
This middle-school novel is wonderful for anyone who likes stories of nerdy girls, overcoming tragedy, or the freedom that comes from confessing one’s guilt. Sympathetic and compelling.
Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.