Reviews

The Thing About Jellyfish

“Suzy’s best friend, Franny Jackson, was a strong swimmer. There is no way she could have drowned, at least in Suzy’s mind. Suzy’s determined search for a different explanation for her friend’s death leads her to believe that Franny was stung by an Irukandji jellyfish. Having nothing but time, since she has no other friends and has decided to stop talking, Suzy sets out to prove her theory. This a multilayered novel takes readers on several concurrent emotional journeys. Benjamin skillfully blends time and narrative to slowly reveal truths about Suzy: first and foremost that their friendship was over long before Franny’s death. The girl she had once thought her best friend decided it was time for a middle school social upgrade, choosing popularity over her awkward childhood pal. Suzy’s decision to seek revenge and remind Franny of their bond backfires, destroying what was left of their relationship. Consequently, Franny’s death is the impetus for the protagonist’s mission of personal reconciliation for the guilt and regret she feels over their falling out. Suzy’s fierce intelligence, compounded by her painful transition into adolescence, makes her a sympathetic and compelling character. Benjamin’s sense of timing and delivery is extraordinary, as she blends the visceral experiences of Suzy’s journey with an internal dialogue that is authentic and poignant. Though Suzy herself is oddly unique in her self-imposed social ineptitude and singular focus, the politics of friendships and changing values of young teens will resonate with readers. Benjamin’s inverse approach to tragedy, placing the death at the beginning of the novel and storytelling through the grieving process, transcends the tragedy trope, as the story triumphs in the affecting realities of emotional response and resilience. VERDICT Strong readers of middle grade realistic fiction will fully immerse themselves in this superbly written, heartfelt novel.”

— School Library Journal, starred review

“Suzy lost her longtime best friend twice: first at the beginning of sixth grade, when Franny shifted away from her and into a clique of “pretty girls,” and irrevocably during the following summer, when Franny drowned at the beach. Entering seventh grade and burdened by painful memories that she can neither express nor forget, Suzy almost entirely stops talking for many months. She becomes fascinated with jellyfish and intent on linking Franny’s drowning to a sting. Unable to connect meaningfully with those who are closest to her, she secretly, meticulously plans a trip to Australia to consult a jellyfish specialist in hopes of finding answers to her questions about Franny’s death. In the end, though, a conversation closer to home offers what she needs in order to deal with the experience, forgive herself, and move forward. Benjamin’s involving novel features clean, fluid writing that is highly accessible, yet rich with possibilities for discussion. Science-minded and fascinated by facts, Suzy is intellectually able to see the big picture, but limited in her life experience. Her highly individual, first-person narrative makes compelling reading. Facts and metaphors related to jellyfish are woven seamlessly into the narrative of this memorable story. An uncommonly fine first novel.”
— Booklist Magazine, starred review

“In middle school, where “Worst Thing” can mean anything from a pimple to public humiliation, Suzy “Zu” Swanson really has a reason to be in crisis: her former best friend has died unexpectedly, and the seventh-grader is literally silenced by grief and confusion. A chance encounter with a jellyfish display on a school trip gives her focus—for Zu, the venomous Irukandji jellyfish, while rare, provides a possible explanation for the “how” of Franny’s death. And Zu is desperate for answers and relief from her haunting grief and guilt. In seven parts neatly organized around the scientific method as presented by Mrs. Turton, a middle school teacher who really gets the fragility of her students, Zu examines and analyzes past and present. A painful story of friendship made and lost emerges…Zu is awkward, smart, methodical, and driven by sadness. She eventually follows her research far beyond the middle school norm, because ” ‘Sometimes things just happen’ is not an explanation. It is not remotely scientific.’ A painful story smartly told, Benjamin’s first solo novel has appeal well beyond a middle school audience.”
Kirkus Reviews, starred review

“In her first solo outing, Benjamin (coauthor of Positive with Paige Rawl) composes a moving portrayal of loss and healing. Franny Jackson and Suzy Swanson had been best friends for years until Franny joined a middle-school clique and began to drift from Suzy and her penchant for scientific facts. As seventh grade begins, 12-year-old Suzy channels the conflicting emotions surrounding Franny’s drowning death into silence, shutting out her divorced parents, her older brother and his boyfriend, her psychologist, and a caring science teacher. Replacing language with research, Suzy follows the scientific method, whose structure mirrors that of the book, hoping to prove that a jellyfish sting was responsible for Franny’s drowning. Reminiscent of works by Jennifer L. Holm and Sharon Creech, Benjamin’s novel is a shining example of the highs and lows of early adolescence, as well as a testament to the grandeur of the natural world. Increasingly fascinated by her own theories, Suzy embarks on an ambitious plan to prove her hypothesis, while tentatively reaching out to new friends and finding support for her emerging voice.”
— Publisher’s Weekly, starred review


The Keeper

“Thanks to its honesty, the book is one of the best sports memoirs I’ve read recently. Howard is unsentimental when it comes to how he was treated at the end of his time at Manchester United. His section on why he and his wife split—he essentially chose soccer over her—would be risky if its candor were not so refreshing. His explanation of Tourette’s is eye-opening and educational.”
— Daily Beast

“Inspiring and compulsively readable.”
— People Magazine

“Howard is a gracious narrator… the most affecting part of his book comes when he describes the failure of his marriage.”
— Chicago Tribune

“a good story… Mr. Howard’s book is mostly about hard men on a difficult mission, and as such it can be nearly as single-minded as Ernest Shackleton’s diary.”
— New York Times


Positive

“Rawl and Benjamin deftly capture the mindset of middle schooler Paige with anecdotes that reveal the teen’s innocence and naivete, tracking her progress toward adulthood. They tackle tough subjects such as suicide delicately but honestly. Readers will come away feeling inspired by Rawl’s work as an HIV/AIDS speaker and anti-bullying advocate.”
— Kirkus Reviews

“This realistic and honest biography of a young woman living with HIV will draw readers in, shedding light on this difficult topic… Through short chapters, teens will get a sense of the girl’s life, including her happy childhood, the strong bond between her and her mother, and the difficulties she faced, as well as gain accessible information on HIV/AIDS.”
— Library Journal

“As readers follow (Paige’s) personal journey from middle school target to activist, they will be touched by her mature belief that her painful experiences eventually led her to a richer life — and her commitment to help others.”
— Common Sense Media

“Bottom Line: powerful message by a strong young lady.”
— YA Books Central

“In this heart wrenching, inspiring memoir, Paige recounts her story of how she hit rock bottom—and still managed to find hope even in the darkest situations. POSITIVE is the type of book that compels readers to do something. It ignites a compassion-fueled, indignant spark to reach out to those who are hurting. Paige narrates with a clear straightforward voice… POSITIVE is the type of book that compels readers to do something. It ignites a compassion-fueled, indignant spark to reach out to those who are hurting.”
— Teen Reads


The Cleaner Plate Club

“This book comes with lots of information, a witty sense of humor, and even an any-mistake-you-made-we-made-it-too attitude.”
— USA Today

“… thankfully written for Real Parents, meaning we who want the best for our families, but who are very, very tired… This book is jammed with info: guidelines, pantry lists, meal-planning techniques and time-savers—yet the energetic authors make it feel as fresh as our next family dinner can be, with their plate-cleaning help.”
— Publishers Weekly

“This crayon-colored real-food manifesto from mommy bloggers Bader and Benjamin, gives parents plenty of ammo in the never-ending battle to get their kids to eat better.”
— Library Journal

Presented in a colorful, kid-friendly style, with mom-next-door chatty text, this guide offers advice on what to choose and how to cook it in a fast-food age. VERDICT: The market for books on this subject continues to grow following Pollan’s 2006 best seller, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and this is a useful addition. Great for public libraries and all readers interested in healthy cooking/shopping for the family.
— Mother Earth News

“Keeping your resolution just got easier thanks to The Cleaner Plate Club.”
— KCUR, Kansas City Public Media

“It’s like Michael Pollan for real people.”
— Kitchen Daily


From time to time, I do speaking engagements. Here are some comments from a recent talk in Chicago (200+ people):

  • “Loved this session! Ali was so inspiring.”
  • “This was a great way to end the conference. The breakout sessions got me fired up by showing me ‘how.’ Ali’s closing session got me even more fired up by emphasizing ‘why.’ Loved it!”
  • “This was the best general session of the conference. Absolutely wonderful!”
  • “Helped me realize how important it is to get our story out to the public.”
  • “Fantastic presentation!”
  • “What a wonderful closing to a great conference!”