The Thing About Jellyfish

Award Nominee, death, gay characters, Young Readers

A story of loss as narrated by 12-year-old Suzanne beginning a month into her “no talking” phase, following the accidental drowning death of her best friend, Franny.

Suzanne is haunted by the last words she said to Franny at the end of their 6th grade year.  The last time she saw Franny, she had made her cry.  Fast forward to the end of the summer and Suzanne is told Fanny drowned while on a summer vacation to the beach.  As disbelief and shock takes over, she realizes the importance of words and how her words hurt her friend, and now her friend is dead.  She comes to the conclusion that one really shouldn’t speak unless they have something important to say – and most of what everyone says is not important.  Thus, her no talking phase begins.

On a class trip to the aquarium, Suzanne fixates on the Jellyfish.  She then takes a fact the class is told, about how many people are stung by a Jellyfish each minute, and in a snowball effect (or just the wide reaching trying to find logic besides “Sometimes bad things just happen”) she believes Franny must have been stung by a Jellyfish to cause such a great swimmer to drown.  Suzanne becomes obsessed with creating her hypothesis about Franny under the ruse of a science class project.

As narration shuffles through their elementary and then junior high friendship (in a very sweet, juvenile way), we are given glimpses of the typical middle school awkwardness and how friendships change.  Throughout the chapters focused on their friendship – or learning way more than I ever thought I would about Jellyfish – we see a younger version of a preteen trying to process death.  When Suzanne is first told of Franny’s death her first reaction is that that’s impossible as Franny was  a great swimmer.  Her logic is factual, like most 12 year olds.

  • Illogical it occurred.  Death doesn’t just happen, but there must be a reason she died – the jellyfish.  Questioning, but mostly confusion. If she can prove that Franny’s death was due to a jellyfish sting it will show some logic and reason to her friend dying.  I think this is totally reasonable for a 12 year-old’s thought process.  What is lovely about her journey is that she finally realizes there is no right or wrong way to grieve and while sometimes things “just happen” isn’t a good reason for us – it is the truth.

Suzanne is the awkward girl we either were or knew.  She isn’t quiet ready for the hormonal changes of middle school when girls seem to giggle differently at boys, care about lip gloss, and suddenly cliques emerge.  It’s rough to witness for a while, but her like-ability seeps from the pages and we root for her the entire time, even when she is so clearly putting her foot in her mouth or planning how to travel to a jellyfish expert.   Suzanne is simply trying to understand and in the end, her family supports her through the crazy decisions she made, a new friend supports her quirkiness, and Suzanne is OK.  To move on from a death close to you is hard, and while you may never truly recover, you can move on and that is the great realization in this story.

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I Was Here – Gayle Forman

death, families, mental illness, suicide

Cody receives an email from her friend Meg that she has killed herself.  Planning an email on a time delay, indicating which motel she was in, and telling her parents how to deal with her body…. it seems Meg thought of everything, only not how her suicide would affect her best friend, family, and the small town she had just left behind.

Cody, much like everyone, is confused more than anything that Meg killed herself.  Even boxing up most of her own belongings before committing suicide, it seems Meg was factual, logical, and of sound mind – lists, boxes, emails.  How can one such intelligent and functioning girl want to die?  In her email Meg wrote it had been coming for a long time and Cody begins to question her entire background with her best friend.

  • A side note to myself on the main emotions and how loss is dealt with in this book (for my next piece on The Hub): Confusion, bitterness of being left behind, and that she failed her friend by not keeping in touch.  The overall tone is being left behind and the reasons Meg killed herself.  Confusion mostly until Cody feels a purpose in figuring out why Meg killed herself, and that is where the suicide gets darker in a realistic, online-suicide-group sort of way.  Everyone processes grief differently – baking, talking (or not talking), reliving memories, or anger….. “the tentacles of her suicide” affecting everyone.  Later Cody must acknowledge forgiveness and that she may need to forgive herself, but in her grief she’d rather be angry because she’d rather focus on anger than feel exposed and the resulting sadness.  She does not want to face the depth of her loss.  Meg’s Dad mentions how if there was someone to blame then grieving her would be simpler and cleaner.  Once Cody let’s her true feelings out, the guilt is the strongest, but in the end she is just left left sad about what was and what could have been.  Anger and sadness can be experienced at the same time during grief and this book  covers it well – as well as the added bonus of trying to teach forgiveness for ourselves (and hits upon depression and mental illness).

Once Cody, with the help of one of Meg’s roommates who hacks into an encrypted file on her computer, finds a trail to an anonymous internet suicide group she has a purpose to find out why Meg killed herself.  With the help of Meg’s odd mix of roommates (the stoner minister’s son is a good one), and the ex that broke Meg’s heart, Cody finds an odd Scooby Gang to help her investigate Meg’s death.  The book gets dark, but isn’t that a needed warning for teens and what they can find on the internet and to be wary of anonymous strangers?  Many who censor what their children read won’t like this once the suicide group gets into the plot,  but I believe that knowledge is useful and a powerful form of independence and intelligence – I think it’s a fine book, definitely dark, but stuff like this is out there so why not address it?  There is a really shady person on the chat board who discusses suicide as “freedom” and even encourages Meg to find her freedom and that perhaps it will set others free from her.  What can be troubling is the one-sided view of the forum showing suicide as seen as brave in some cultures and encouraging the act.  I certainly wouldn’t want that taught to some young readers, but most teens know there are bad groups on the internet.

While the main plot is Cody trying to find the reason for Meg’s suicide, in searching for that answer she feels is necessary to move on in her own life, we are shown different types of families – from the best to the worst-  and it isn’t until the end that the reader grasps that not all of life’s events have predictable causes, not all people are as they seem from social stereotypes, and families range from loving adoptive parents to those that abandon their children, or worse – show indifference to their existence.  But the most important thing that comes out of this book is forgiveness, not for a criminal or a victim, but for those left behind and how we forgive ourselves, and to remember those who die were here.  For a moment. I Was Here proves there are so many moments and emotions during the healing process and that it is different for everyone.

 

And We Stay – Jenny Hubbard

Award Nominee, death, Female Leads, Printz Award Nominee or Winner, Read-a-Likes, suicide

Jenny’s Junior Year of High School involves a transfer to a prestigious all-girl boarding school in Massachusetts.   The reason:  her ex-boyfriend showed up to her old high school, with a gun, and killed himself in the library.  OK, that sounded a bit like a game of Clue, but And We Stay is nothing to laugh at.  This Printz Award Nominee (2015) reminds me of Looking for Alaska by John Greene in that also has darker passages into the psyche of adolescents and forming self-identites.  While Alaska took us into the thoughts of the suicidal teen, And We Stay deals with the thoughts, questions, and anger of those left behind in possibly an accidental suicide.  Even that is a question – was Paul intending to kill himself or was it an accident?  There are no clear answers to this tragedy in Emily’s life.

An interesting element to the story is that it’s set in 1995, which is before school shootings began to be a common occurrence.  I wonder why she set it 20 years ago, but it will still appeal to teens now, but I am curious to the time chosen.

  • Notes to myself for the next article I’m doing for YALSA’s The Hub: this story brings up the shame and wanted secrecy of being left behind (or even the cause) of a suicide.  Also, touches on how people deal with death.  In I Was Here, the small town finds no surprise in Meg’s suicide using hindsight to process and understand that vibrate girl’s suicide.  In this story, while people try to find solace in religion and a higher power, Hubbard clearly (and honestly) offers an example of how people process grief – finding understanding through religion.  For Emily, however, that offers no peace or understanding – a fact I appreciate as many people face anger in the aftermath of a death and it is not only a respected stage of grief, but an honest human reaction to facing tragedy that one cannot understand initially, if ever.  The mind needs to process (not to mention the heart) …. in the aftermath of tragedy trying to process and cope are her challenges. Questioning faith and God

But Emily knows that God had nothing to do with it: it was her human error that caused Paul to end his life….As Reverend Wright prepared,with ancient Biblical words, to return Paul to the earth, Emily sent a letter to God….. Paul’s funeral was forty- six days ago.  She has not spoken to God since. (20)

Emily considers how girls’ brains are different and how she possibly could have saved Paul – an often guilt ridden thought left by those following a suicide.  Toward the end Emily has come to accept Paul’s death (time and a new environment surely helped) and developed a less angry tone to remembering Paul, “Emily knows she will always remember Paul, but she isn’t sure where it is he will stay.  She hopes he’ll stay in her head.  She will need room in her heart for other things, other people.”  This makes me rethink the title of And We Stay from focusing on the people left behind in a death to thinking those that die still stay in our hearts and minds.

An added bonus to Hubbard’s writing is the comparison and insight to Emily Dickinson’s life and poems – Dickinson is the namesake of the school.  But besides some enjoyment offered to our narrator Emily, the interest in poetry as a form of expression assists our Emily as she processes Paul’s death.  It also offers her a connection to Emily Dickinson while she’s hiding her past, shipped off from her family, and thrust into a new world – one that knows nothing about her and in which she feels alone.  We (the reader) are gifted with poems from both Emily Dickinson and Emily Beam – classics and originals, from Dickinson and Hubbard.  I especially liked the one with the take on the name/word Paul.  Hubbard is not only a great novelist, but also a nice poet.  This is a great story, covering two serious life events (death and an abortion), but it also covers the difficult process people go through in dealing with tragedy to heal and also develop deeper understanding to their own self-identity and how identities change and grow.

 

If You’re Lucky – Yvonne Prinz

Action, death, families

Georgia’s brother Lucky is dead on the first page.  The first chapter shows anger and raw emotion as she and her parents process Lucky’s death.  As an adventurous, outdoorsy, responsible college student the death, drowning during a surfing accident off the coast of Australia, seems like an uncharacteristic end to such a charismatic and strong man.

Prinz covers the topic well, not just for dramatic entertainment, but for the gut wrenching descriptions of a mother’s animal-like wail to the stages of grief and how quickly Georgia can curse at her brother for dying, then tell him she loves him in the next breath.

  • doubt, sadness, and disbelief are the main emotions, but in the end Georgia feels lucky to still be alive and (a note to myself since my next article for The Hub is about loss, grief, and bibliotherapy in YA fiction.)

This story is more than a story of grief and healing.  It takes on a mystery surrounding Lucky’s death, one that resembles The Talented Mr. Ripley while Georgia suspects the new stranger, Fin, is not the mourning best friend who her family takes in.  As she questions his true nature, her family begins to wonder if Georgia’s grief has taken on a hallucinating state of denial.  The mystery laid out (enjoyably so) for the reader is whether Georgia isn’t fooled by Fin as the rest of the small town or whether her own mental state (specifically schizophrenia) is what is fooling her.

As Georgia’s suspicions grow (or is it the case of her mental illness worsening?) she gathers clues against Fin and sees (hallucinates) Lucky, who is trying to warn her.  Is Georgia the only one who sees the truth or is she the only one falling into a state mixed of grief and paranoia?  When does one allow the true loss to be felt in order to try and grieve and heal instead of trying to find a piece to hold onto of the person you miss the most?  Grief and healing is different for every person, but throw in the mix a mental disease and skipping medication— well this gave quite the climactic mystery.

It’s Not Summer Without You – Jenny Han

death, families, love

Well I picked up this audio CD without knowing it was a 2nd in a series.  That’s OK, I like Jenny Han and I caught on.  It’s a story about loss and how one moves on from loss.   In this case it’s our narrator, Belly (guess I should have read the first of the Summer series to know why her nickname is ‘Belly’).  Anyway, her pseudo aunt has died and left many heartbroken, but she is also recovering from the breakup with Conrad, Suzanne’s son, and summertime childhood friend turned fling after many years.

A good amount of teenage questioning occurs such as how, as we age relationships change.  Conrad struggles with the loss of his mom and turns everyone away, while his brother Jeremiah is happy to rekindle his old friendships – especially when Conrad disappears for a few days. The kids have an unrealistic few days at the summer “Cousins” beach house (unsupervised), but it’s a nice coming of age / grieving / growing up that any teen reader will enjoy due to those days of freedom.

What is significant in this novel which deals with death is that the question of how one grieves is brought up numerous times.  Sometimes even to question whose grief is more important than other person’s grief – the sons, the best friend, the ex-husband?  How everyone reacts to death is different not only based on the relationship, but based on each individual, and Belly finds out that its not whose grief that is most important, but that it is dealt with properly in a way to heal and move on.

Still, I prefer (and loved) To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before also by Jenny Han, which also offers a great coming of age story, but a bit more comical.

The ending though totally makes me want to read the third book – it’s years later and Belly runs out on her own wedding…..what!?!

Series: The Summer I turned Pretty 

the-summer-I-turned-pretty

Halo – Alexandra Adornetto

death, religious, Series

I usually don’t read angel books, but this came recommended.  Angels are coming to Earth to try and get humanity on the right track.  This is less about going to church and more about stopping violence so I thought that was a good enough reason to begin reading.  It’s the first of a trilogy so who knows how into religion it goes, but considering the following titles are Hades and Heaven, I’m guessing it gets deeper.  What I like about this series so far is less the idea of angles and more the budding love story between Bethany (the teen angel) and Xavier.  He is School Captain and overall nice guy, but still guarded after the death of both his girlfriend and best friend.  Odd things have occurred in this town, which is why Bethany and her two siblings – both Heavenly and as a cover story for their Earthly presence – were sent.

As Bethany learns the ways of a small town and stereotypical high school experiences, she sees the good in humanity.  It isn’t until the (obvious) introduction of the mysterious, cute, British rebel that the storyline isn’t all rainbows and goodness.  It’s obvious from the beginning of meeting Jake Thorne that he will be a demon or something to counter the good (and lazily named) sibling trio, whose chosen last name is Church.

twilight_book_cover

I kept thinking this shared the obvious, and overly too perfect for each other love of the Twilight series by Stephanie Meyer.  Two beings, from different worlds, are both drawn to one another and in a far, too dramatic in teen angst, but too mature in adult reasoning and relationship revelations type of love relationship.  In these two books, the ability to process such complex relationship issues as one would have if loving an angel from Heaven or a vampire from hundreds of years ago is not a realistic ability in maturity of the typical 17 year old.  But why try to draw reason in these plots when the series is so clearly for preteen girls just beginning to think of relationships and wanting the never-ending love that they believe is the love story waiting for them?

This has an OK storyline.  It certainly won’t offend most parents since it involves angels and at least in this first segment, it’s not too religious to offend this laid back Episcopalian.  Jake eventually gets a following and brings some demons to earth and our angels must intervene, but I am sort of curious about the next in the trilogy…… alluring most readers with the title of Hades and with the promise that a spurned and angry Jake (demon) Thorne is returning.

series

Overall, this is just as over the top teen love and high school driven plot as many YA novels where the love story is between a mortal and immortal being.  Not sure how religious it goes, but it is not subtle in showing how decisions (drinking, dating, sex, grades, responsibility) affect one’s life, which is probably a lesson many preteens need to be reminded of and one most parents wouldn’t mind this angle-mortal love story teaching.

Sweet – Emmy Laybourne

Action, death, Favorites, Female Leads

Celebrities and overweight people are on a cruise with a special, new, dietary aid.  Solu is a sweetener to put on your food, in coffee, or cook with, and it will help people lose weight – or at least that is the stipulation for this expensive PR 24/7 event.  Its introduction is a week long cruise, with press, celebrities, and average people (well, those that can afford it) being televised over satellite before Solu is released to the public 7 days later.

The story has dual narrators – Laurel who is along with her best friend.  Both girls are slightly overweight and while Laurel is not there to lose weight her best friend Viv is.  Viv’s dad paid for the girls to go on this cruise hosted by Tom, our second narrator.  Tom is a reality star who is famous for his years of being overweight child Tom-Tom to a televised audience.  Now in shape, Tom doesn’t care to take Solu and neither does Laurel.  The foreshadowing that they will not only witness the effects of Solu, but then have to try and survive isolated on this ship is clear, but just like Monument 14 – Emmy Laybourne keeps on delivering twists to the plot and crazy gruesome details of injuries and death.  I love her books, but I do recommend them with caution and often only to older readers.

I can’t give much more detail to the story itself without giving a lot away.  There’s a love connection, a corrupt scientist, and a whole lot of addicts who being to resemble zombies or brainwashed people losing all inhibitions and fear.  Parts seem to be more zombie-esque than survivalist, but it’s full of action –  and funny at times even when people are going crazy, which is a pretty impressive balance to pull off.

Love Letters to the Dead – Ava Dellaira

Award Nominee, death, families, Female Leads

love

For a school assignment, 15 year old Laurel is instructed to write a letter to a dead person.  Instead of choosing her hero, recently deceased older sister, she opts for various celebrities: Kurt Cobain, Judy Garland, Amelia Earheart, Amy Winehouse, Heath Ledger.  In between her letters to the dead – some praising them, some thinking aloud – we follow her days in a new school, bouncing between the house of her dad and her aunt, and her struggle to fit in and make friends while still under the shadow of her sister.

It’s not very depressing or sad at the beginning. In fact, it seems fluff at first.  The most entertaining parts (for me) were learning about the backgrounds of Kurt Cobain and Judy Garland.  Laurel gives lots of history in her letters to bond or share similarities with these dead celebrities, so there’s a bit of nonfiction to their biographies.  In real life, her friends at school are all misfits: secret lesbians, smart girl dating the “doesn’t apply himself” boy, and the crush with a bad history.

Like most teens with a tragedy behind them, Laurel blames herself for May’s death.  As she writes her letters to the dead, her truth comes out: abuse and self blame.

The only real star quality of this book is that in losing her sister, Laurel appreciates life.  This isn’t a great piece of literature or doesn’t have a shocking climax.  For an overly dramatic teen or one who loves these musicians or celebrities (or someone who thinks their journal writing is the most significant writing out there) a teen will enjoy the book.

Sadly, most adults reading this YA won’t feel like they found a new “hit”, but will simply be reminded of their own high school, overly dramatic and self important, days.

But, Laurel grows to be stronger.  So there’s a conclusion, still….not the next big hit.  But for a teen who struggles, he/she may find some connection. To me, it’s just aimed at whiny, self-important preteens.

Due to the sexual abuse, death, and alcohol use —- still 14 and up.

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown

death, families, Fantasy, Favorites

In many vampire fantasy books, vampires are still an unrecognized “people” or at least unaccepted.  Not so in TCGIC, in middle America and across the world, the vampire outbreak was witnessed and recorded on news and social media.  While one vampire was romanticized the following vampires were ravenous beasts, which led to the creations of Coldtowns, towns in which lockdown keeps vampires and those affected and either waiting to turn, or in the process of turning.

The story begins at a high school party when Tana awakens in the morning – in a bathtub, hungover (that as an indication to which YA fan should read this).  She stumbles into the living room where all of her friends have been massacred in a bloody, violent attack caused by a window being open on that hot summer night.  Between their cold open eyes and carpet squishing from the blood, it’s a pretty gruesome scene – and an attack that Tana knows is one of the largest since vampires have lived among them.  She finds her friend Aiden tied to a bed with a vampire chained in the corner.  Upon hearing vampires lurking in the shadows of the hallway, Tana rescues not only Aiden, but Gabriel –  a vampire.  As the trio sets off in Tana’s car, with Gabriel in the trunk hidden from the sun, she realizes Aiden has been bitten and is on his way to turning.  They come across a brother and sister, Winter and Midnight, who are vampire groupies and are wanting to enter Coldtown.  With Aiden turning, Gabriel with them, and Tana fearing she is also turning “Cold” since she was bitten leaving the farmhouse, the group sets off for one of the government established Coldtown cities – all with different agendas.

Once the group enters Coldtown, Midnight takes them to a friend and the trouble begins as Aiden’s infection increases.  Eventually Tana escapes, but not after stumbling across a second horrific blood bath.  She meets a new friend who offers protection, but her loyalty to Aiden leads her into a party at Lucien’s house, the strongest and most famous of vampires.  Power, politics, grudges dating back centuries all come up similarly to most vampire tales.  Tana’s bad luck continues with – yet another – murderous scene, a reuniting with Gabriel, and an attack.

Tana is a strong lead often fighting her own fears and urges to help not only humans, but vampires.  There are more dangerous scenes, vampire attacks even within Coldtown, and a growing confusion for Tana finding loyalty with vampires and vampire hunters alike.  When her old life collides with her new life in Coldtown, Tana takes on more danger and finds her strength.  As a reoccurring point that Holly Black makes – does becoming a vampire turn you into a monster or unleash feelings and urges already within the person?  Tana questions if vampires are truly monsters as she she not only begins to turn “cold” but is also falling for Gabriel.

Most definitely a story for the older teens.  (this is more than Twilight, less than Ann Rice).  The writing is well done and descriptive.  An example: “Instead, it was though she were being devoured by cold flame.  And each lick of that black fire made her shudder with rapture’s agony.” — I don’t remember Twilight being so sensual.

The Program by Suzanne Young

death, Dystopian, families, Favorites, love, suicide

program

Teens + suicide epidemic = The Program

When suicides among teenagers continuously increases, the government – with the support of parents – created The Program.  For Sloane The Program is a place that steals her friends’ memories and returns them as strangers because once you are in The Program, your sad memories are erased in an effort to keep teenagers from getting depressed.  Sloan hides her feelings well, even though people watch her more closely than others since her brother committed suicide.  There is one person who she can be honest with and that is her boyfriend James – her brother’s best friend.  Together they grieve, they hide their true emotions from others, but soon the depression gets too strong for them and they are taken into The Program.

The book is divided into three parts: Before Sloane and James are taken into The Program, Sloane and James in The Program, and then once they are returned to their families.  The plot takes a serious turn in the second part as Sloane tries to survive her time in The Program.  Like an medical institution when the doctors believe the patients are a danger to themselves, certain restrictions apply.  Sloan does find one friend – and one enemy.  As she learns more about The Program she finds out there is a pill that will help you hold onto one memory even if in The Program.  Unfortunately the one keeping this pill from her is only willing to give it to her after she gives in to his advances.

In the third part, and conclusion, Sloane and James are assimilated back into their lives outside of The Program.  Only, like other patients, they do not remember a lot of their past.  And most upsetting is James does not remember Sloane.  There are a few more plot twists along the way, such as the true cause of The Program, but the remainder of the book is focused on whether James will get his memories back and remember his love for Sloan.

Other elements: drugs, sex, (obviously) depression and suicide

Best for ages 13 +

The Sequel: The Treatment