What themes are appropriate for a young adult novel? Bullying? Mean girls? A powerful friendship between little girls that unravels as the children close in on teenage years?
Probably, but what about death, divorce and an existential search for answers? And science - lots of science. All of those feature prominently in Ali Benjamin’s "The Thing About Jellyfish," a debut novel long-listed for the National Book Award.
The novel is as moving as it is entertaining, weaving a powerful story about a quirky pre-teen with the pain of loss and isolation.
Benjamin joins Here & Now host Robin Young to discuss the book, as well as what it means to write for middle schoolers, and how the novel is likely to affect adults.
Book Excerpt: 'The Thing About Jellyfish'
A jellyfish, if you watch it long enough begins to look like a heart beating. It doesn’t matter what kind: the blood-red Atolla with its flashing siren lights, the frilly flower hat variety, or the near‑transparent moon jelly, Aurelia aurita. It’s their pulse, the way they contract swiftly, then release. Like a ghost heart—a heart you can see right through, right into some other world where everything you ever lost has gone to hide.
Jellyfish don’t even have hearts, of course—no heart, no brain, no bone, no blood. But watch them for a while. You will see them beating.
Mrs. Turton says that if you lived to be eighty years old, your heart would beat three billion times. I was thinking about that, trying to imagine a number that large. Three billion. Count back three billion hours, and modern humans don’t exist—just wild‑eyed cave people, all hairy and grunting. Three billion years, and life itself barely exists. And yet here’s your heart, doing its job all the time, one beat after the next, all the way up to three billion.
But only if you get to live that long.
It’s beating when you’re sleeping, when you’re watching TV, when you’re standing at the beach with your toes in the sand. Maybe while you’re standing there, you’re looking at sparkles of white light on dark ocean, wondering if it’s worth getting your hair wet again. Maybe you notice that your bathing suit straps are just a little too tight on your sunburned shoulders or that the sun is too bright in your eyes.
You squint a little. You are as alive as anybody else right now.
Meanwhile the waves keep rolling over your toes, one after another (like a heartbeat, almost—you can notice it or not), and the elastic is digging in, and perhaps what you notice, more than the sun or the straps, is how cold the water is, or the way the waves create hollow places in the wet sand beneath your feet. Your mom is off at your side somewhere; she’s taking a picture, and you know you should turn to her and smile.
But you don’t. You don’t turn, you don’t smile, you just keep looking out at the sea, and neither of you knows what matters about this moment, about what’s about to happen (how could you?).
And the whole while, your heart just keeps going. It does what it needs to do, one beat after another, until it gets the message that it’s time to stop, which might happen a few minutes from now, and you don’t even know it yet.
Because some hearts beat only about 412 million times.
Which might sound like a lot. But the truth is, it barely even gets you twelve years.
It doesn’t matter if you’re writing a middle school lab report or a real scientific paper. Begin with an introduction that establishes the purpose for all the information that’s to follow. What do we hope to find out from this research? How does it relate to human concerns?
—Mrs. Turton, Grade 7 Life Science teacher
Eugene Field Memorial Middle School,
South Grove, Massachusetts
During the first three weeks of seventh grade, I’d learned one thing above all else: A person can become invisible simply by staying quiet.
I’d always thought that being seen was about what people perceived with their eyes. But by the time the Eugene Field Memorial Middle School made the fall trip to the aquarium, I, Suzy Swanson, had disappeared entirely. Being seen is more about the ears than the eyes, it turns out.
We were standing in the touch tank room, listening to a bearded aquarium worker speak into a micro‑ phone. “Hold your hand flat,” he said. He explained that if we placed our hands in the tank and held them perfectly still, tiny sharks and rays would graze against our palms like friendly house cats. “They’ll come to you, but you have to keep your hand flat and very still.”
I would have liked to feel a shark against my fingers. But it was too crowded at the tank, too noisy. I stood in the back of the room. Just watching.
We had made tie‑dye shirts in art class in preparation for this field trip. We’d stained our hands neon orange and blue, and now we wore the shirts like a psychedelic uniform. I guess the idea was that we’d be easy to spot if any of us got lost. A few of the pretty girls—girls like Aubrey LaValley and Molly Sampson and Jenna Van Hoose—had tied their T‑shirts into knots at their hips. Mine hung over my jeans like an old art smock.
It was exactly one month since the Worst Thing had happened, and almost as long since I’d started not talking. Which isn’t refusing to talk, like every‑ one thinks it is. It’s just deciding not to fill the world with words if you don’t have to. It is the opposite of constant talking, which is what I used to do, and it’s better than small talk, which is what people wished I did.
If I made small talk, maybe my parents wouldn’t insist I see the kind of doctor you can talk to, which is what I would be doing this afternoon, after today’s field trip. Frankly, their reasoning didn’t make sense. I mean, if a person isn’t talking—if that’s the whole point—then maybe the kind of doctor you can talk to is the very last person you should have to see.
Besides, I knew what the kind of doctor you can talk to meant. It meant my parents thought I had problems with my brain, and not the kind of problems that made it hard to do math or learn to read. It meant they thought I had mental problems, the kind that Franny would have called cray cray, which is short for crazy, which comes from the word craze, which means “to fill with cracks and flaws.”
It meant I had cracks and flaws.
“Keep your hands flat,” said the aquarium worker to no one in particular—which was fine, because nobody was listening to him anyway. “These animals can actually feel heartbeats in the room. You really don’t need to wiggle your fingers.”
Justin Maloney, who is a boy who still moves his lips when he reads, kept trying to grab the rays’ tails. His pants were so loose that every time he leaned over the water, I could see several inches of his underwear. I noticed his tie‑dye was inside out. Another ray passed, and Justin reached in so fast that he splashed water all over Sarah Johnston, the new girl, who was standing next to him. Sarah wiped the salt water off her forehead and moved a few steps away from Justin.
Sarah is very quiet, which I like, and she smiled at me on the first day of school. But then Molly walked over and started talking to her, and then I saw her talking to Aubrey at the lockers, and now Sarah’s shirt was knotted at the waist, just like theirs.
I pushed a clump of hair out of my eyes and tried to tuck it behind my ears—Mizz Frizz, hair so impossible. It immediately fell back in my face again.
Dylan Parker snuck up behind Aubrey. He grabbed her shoulders and shook them. “Shark!” he shouted.
The boys around him laughed. Aubrey squealed, and so did all the girls around her, but they were all giggling in that way that girls sometimes do around boys.
And of course that made me think of Franny. Because if she had been there, she would have been giggling, too.
I felt that sweaty‑sick feeling then, the same thing I felt whenever I thought about Franny.
I squeezed my eyes shut. For a few seconds, the darkness was a relief. But then a picture popped into my head, and it was not a good one. I imagined the touch tank breaking, the rays and tiny sharks spilling out all over the floor. And that made me wonder how long the animals could last before they drowned in the open air.
Everything would feel cold and shrill and bright to them. And then the animals would stop breathing forever.
I opened my eyes.
Sometimes you want things to change so badly, you can’t even stand to be in the same room with the way things actually are.
In a far corner of the room, an arrow pointed down a staircase to another exhibit, jellies, on the floor below. I walked over to the stairs, then glanced back to see if anyone would notice. Dylan flicked water at Aubrey, who squealed again. One of the chaperones walked toward them, already scolding.
Even in my neon tie‑dye, even with my Mizz Frizz hair, nobody seemed to see me.
I walked down the stairs, toward the jellies exhibit.
No one noticed. No one at all.
Sometimes Things Just Happen
You were dead for two whole days before
I even knew.
It was afternoon, late August, the end of the long, lonely summer after sixth grade. My mom called me in from outside, and I knew something was wrong—really, really wrong—just by looking at her. I got scared then, thinking that maybe something had happened to my dad. But since the divorce, would it even matter to my mom if he got hurt? Then I thought maybe something was wrong with my brother.
“Zu,” Mom started. I heard the refrigerator hum, a poink poink from the shower dripping, the ticking that comes from the old clock on the mantel whose time is always wrong unless I remember to wind it.
Long streaks of sun crossed through the window, like spirits through walls. They lay down on the carpet and were still.
Mom spoke evenly, her words coming out at normal speed, yet everything seemed slowed down, as if time itself had gone into slow motion. Or maybe like time had stopped existing altogether.
“Franny Jackson drowned.”
Three words. They probably took only a couple of seconds to come out, but they seemed to last about half an hour.
My first thought was: That’s weird. Why is she using Franny’s last name? I couldn’t remember my mom ever using your last name. You were always just Franny to her.
And then I realized the thing she’ d said after she said your name.
She said you had drowned.
“She was on vacation,” Mom continued. I noticed how perfectly still she was sitting, how rigid her shoulders were. “A beach vacation.”
Then she added, as if it would somehow help the thing she’ d said make any sense at all, “In Maryland.”
But of course her words didn’t make sense.
There were a million reasons they didn’t. They didn’t make sense because it hadn’t been that long since I’ d seen you, and you were as alive as anyone then. Her words didn’t make sense because you were always such a good swimmer, better than I was from the instant we met.
They didn’t make sense because the way things ended between us was not the way they were supposed to end. They were not the way anything should ever end.
And yet here was my mom, she was right in front of me, and she was saying these words. And if her words were true, if she was right about this thing she was telling me, it meant that the last glimpse I’ d had of you— walking down the hallway on the last day of sixth grade, carrying those bags of wet clothes and crying—would be the final one I’ d ever have.
I stared at my mom. “No, she didn’t,” I said.
You hadn’t. You couldn’t have. I was sure of that.
Mom opened her mouth to say something, then closed it again. I saw tears fill her eyes.
“She didn’t,” I insisted, louder this time.
“It was Tuesday,” Mom said. Her voice was quieter than before, as if my getting louder had sucked the strength from her own breath. “It happened on Tuesday. I only just found out.”
It was Thursday now.
Two whole days had gone by.
Whenever I think about those two days—about the space between you ending and me knowing—I think about the stars. Did you know that the light from our nearest star takes four years to reach us? Which means when we see it—when we see any star—we are really seeing what it looked like in the past. All those twinkling lights, every star in the sky, could have burned out years ago—the entire night sky could be empty this very minute, and we wouldn’t even know it.
“She could swim,” I said. “She was a good swimmer, remember?”
When Mom said nothing, I tried again. “Remember? Mom.”
Mom just closed her eyes and placed her forehead in the palms of her hands.
“It’s impossible,” I insisted. Why couldn’t she see how impossible this was?
When Mom looked up, she spoke slowly, like she was trying really hard to make sure I heard every single word. “Even good swimmers can drown, Zu.”
“But it doesn’t make sense. How could she—?”
“Not everything makes sense, Zu. Sometimes things just happen.” She shook her head and took a deep breath. “I understand that this probably doesn’t even seem real. It doesn’t seem real to me, either.”
Then she closed her eyes for a few long seconds. When she opened them again, her face twisted up in a terrible way. Tears began spilling down her cheeks. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m just so sorry.”
She looked grotesque, her face all crumpled like that. I hated the way she looked. I turned away from her, those nonsense words still tumbling in my head.
Swimming in Maryland.
Two days ago.
No, none of it made sense. Not then, and not later that night when the Earth dipped toward the stars. Not the next morning when it rolled back around to sunlight again.
It didn’t make sense that the world could roll back to sunlight again.
All this time, I’ d thought that our story was just that: our story. But it turns out you had your own story, and I had mine. Our stories might have overlapped for a while—long enough that they even looked like the same story. But they were different.
And that made me realize this: Everyone’s story is different, all the time. No one is ever really together, even if it looks for a while like they are.
There was a time when my mom knew what had happened to you, when the weight of it had already hit her and I was just running through the grass like it was any other day. And there was a time when someone else knew and my mom didn’t. And a time when your mom knew and almost no one else on the planet did.
And that means that there was a time when you were gone and no one on Earth had any idea. Just you, all alone, disappearing into the water and no one even wondering yet.
And that is an incredibly lonely thing to think about.
Sometimes things just happen, my mom had said. It was a terrible answer, the very worst.
Mrs. Turton says when something happens that no one can explain, it means you have bumped up against the edge of human knowledge. And that is when you need science. Science is the process for finding the explanations that no one else can give you.
I’ll bet you never even met Mrs. Turton.
Sometimes things just happen is not an explanation. It is not remotely scientific. But for weeks and weeks, that was all I had.
Until I stood in that basement room looking at jellyfish on the other side of glass.
The Jellies exhibit, below the touch tank, where the rest of my seventh-grade class flicked water at one another, was nearly empty. It was quiet down there, which was a relief.
Tanks filled the room, and in every one swam different types of jellyfish. I saw jellies whose tentacles were finer than hair; the aquarium must have projected lights into the tank, because the animals kept changing color. Nearby, in a different tank, I looked at jellies whose tentacles swirled the way wisps of a girl’s hair might if she floated under water. In a third tank, the jellies’ tentacles were so thick and straight it looked like the animals had created their own prison. There was even a tank filled with brand‑ new baby jellies; they looked like tiny, delicate white flowers.
Such strange creatures, all of them—they looked like aliens, almost. Graceful aliens. Silent ones. Like alien ballerinas who danced without needing any music.
Near the corner of the room a sign said an invisible enigma. I knew what enigma meant—my mother often said I was one, especially when I dipped fried eggs in grape jelly or deliberately wore mismatched socks. Enigma means “mystery.” I like mysteries, so I walked over to read the sign. Next to the sign, a photograph showed two fingers holding a tiny jar. Inside the jar, almost impossible to see, floated a transparent jellyfish about the size of a fingernail.
The sign was only a couple of paragraphs long. It explained that the jar held something called an Irukandji jellyfish, whose venom is among the most dangerous in the world. Some even said it was a thousand times as strong as that of a tarantula.
An irukandji sting results in excruciating headache and body pain, vomiting, sweating, anxiety, dangerously fast heartbeat, brain hemorrhage, and fluid in the lungs. When stung, patients report a feeling of impending doom; some patients are so certain that death is imminent they beg physicians to kill them so they can “get it over with.”
Well. That sounded completely awful. I read on:
Indeed, there are a number of documented deaths from irukandji syndrome, and it is unknown if irukandji stings have been the true cause of deaths mistakenly attributed to other causes. Scientists are trying to learn more about the venom, and about whether the true impact of the irukandji sting is much greater than previously understood.
While the irukandji lives in large numbers off the coast of Australia, irukandji‑like symptoms have been experienced as far north as the British Isles, and in Hawaii, Florida, and japan. As a result, many researchers believe the irukandji has migrated far beyond its native Australia. As the oceans warm, it is likely that the irukandji, like other jellies, will continue to migrate over greater distances.
When I finished reading that passage, I read it again.
Then I read it for a third time.
I looked at the photograph, at that transparent little creature. Nobody would ever see that thing in the water. It would be completely invisible.
I turned back to the explanation. I stared at those words for a long time.
Number of documented deaths . . .
Migrate over greater distances . . .
My head buzzed, and I felt a little dizzy. It felt like nothing in the world existed besides me and those words and the silent creatures pulsing all around me.
Mistakenly attributed to other causes . . .
I stared at the words so long that they started looking unfamiliar, like something written in an entirely different language.
It was only when I exhaled that I realized I hadn’t been breathing.
My classmates chattering then, and I hurried back up the stairs to the touch tank room where I’d left them.
But upstairs, everything was different. The bearded aquarium worker had been replaced by a woman with a blonde ponytail. She said all the same things into the microphone—hands flat, keep still. The tie‑dyed T‑shirts of my classmates had also disappeared; the touch tank room was now filled with kids in uniforms of khaki and plaid. This was a different school group altogether.
I wondered if my classmates had gone back to the Eugene Field Memorial Middle School without me.
I stepped out into the main part of the aquarium and looked around. It didn’t take long for me to spot those tie‑dyed T‑shirts. They snaked around a giant ocean tank like a school of mottled, neon‑colored fish.
They hadn’t even bothered to visit the jellies exhibit. They knew nothing about the Irukandji. They would never even think to wonder.
I understood then: Nobody would ever wonder.
Nobody but me.
How to Make a Friend
The first time I see you, you are wearing a light blue bathing suit. It is the color of a summer sky, with sparkles all over it like stars, and it looks like day and night are happening at the same time.
I am five years old, and I am starting kindergarten soon. We are at the big pool that is indoors. It is loud here. Everything echoes. The moms are sitting behind us on bleachers. They’ve brought us here, to this class they call Guppies, so we can learn to put our faces in the water and kick.
The teacher blows a whistle, calling kids’ names one at a time. We are supposed to hold on to a foam board and kick and let her pull us around the shallow end. But you don’t jump in when she calls your name, and I don’t jump in when she calls mine, either.
Your hair looks like straw in sunlight. I like your freckles, the way they look like constellations against your skin.
When we are the last ones sitting there, just the two of us at the edge of the pool, the teacher with the whistle comes over to us. She says, Sorry, girls, it’s time to join the class.
I am about to shake my head no when you turn to me. You look right at me, and I see your pink lips part. A smile. Then you take a deep breath and lower yourself into the water. The teacher hands you a foam board, but you don’t take it.
Instead, you go underwater. Your eyes, hair, everything. And you swim. All the way over to where the rest of the kids are clinging to their boards. Underwater the whole way.
I follow you. I lower myself into the water, not because the lady tells me to but because I want to swim like you can. And because I like your freckles and your sun straw hair and the smile you showed me. And because at this moment, making a friend, and having one, seems like the easiest thing in the world.
150 Million Stings
When I arrived home on the afternoon of the aquarium trip, I was surprised to see my brother’s Jeep nosed up right next to my mom’s car. Next to Aaron’s Jeep, cross‑legged on the driveway, sat his boyfriend, Rocco.
I’d spent most of the bus ride home thinking about jellyfish. A sign next to one of the tanks had said that there are 150 million jellyfish stings every year. So during the ride back to school—while the other kids yelled and played music and threw notes from seat to seat and tried to get truck drivers to honk their horns—I’d made some calculations in the back of my science notebook.
One hundred fifty million stings a year is equal to almost 411,000 stings every day, which is equal to 17,000 jellyfish stings every hour.
And that means four to five stings every single second.
I’d closed my eyes and counted to five. By the time I was finished, something like twenty‑three people had just been stung.
Then I did it again. One, two three, four, five.
Another twenty‑three people.
I counted again and again. I counted so much that the counting and the stings started to seem like the same thing—as if instead of measuring the stings, I was somehow causing them. And even though I knew that couldn’t be true, some part of me almost believed it: like, if only I could just stop counting, maybe I could make the stings stop.
But I couldn’t stop counting to five. It was like one part of my brain insisted on defying another part of my brain.
Rocco squinted up at me from the asphalt. “Well, hey there, Suzy Q,” he said. “Beautiful day, huh?”
I didn’t answer him. He must have known I wouldn’t.
He waved his hand toward the sky. “If I were a bird,” he said, “I would fly about the earth seeking successive autumns. . . .”
He barely seemed to be talking to me, actually. I liked that. It was like watching someone’s private thoughts, as if I were both there and not‑there at the same time.
“George Eliot,” he added, and I nodded, as if I knew who that was. Rocco is a graduate student in English literature at the university where Aaron coaches women’s soccer. Rocco is always quoting someone.
If I were the type of person who still said things, I might have said to Rocco: Count to five. And when he was done counting, I could have told him about the twenty‑three stings.
Then I’d have made him do it again. And I’d have said: Forty-six stings.
And again. Sixty-nine.
Rocco interrupted my thoughts. “Aaron and I stopped by to see if we could convince you and your mom to go to the movies,” he said. “But she says you have a doctor’s appointment or something.”
The doctor that I could talk to. Ugh.
Then he grinned. “Your mom, of course, took this as an opportunity to pass on some of her ‘treasures.’ She’s loading Aaron up now.”
He emphasized that word—treasures—and I had to smile. Mom likes shopping at thrift stores—she calls it treasure hunting, though I have never figured out what exactly makes somebody’s discarded fondue set or chipped flowerpot a treasure. Mom just can’t resist what she thinks is a bargain. Our house is filled with boxes of oddball items like jars filled with buttons (she doesn’t sew), and muffin tins (she doesn’t bake), and knitting needles held together with masking tape (she doesn’t knit).
Rocco patted the asphalt next to him. “Sit.” It was nice to be asked, but I needed to keep thinking about those stings. I shook my head, then gave a tiny wave goodbye. Rocco saluted me, then closed his eyes and lifted his face toward the sun.
I walked toward the house, adding numbers as fast as I could.
One hundred and fifteen stings.
One hundred and thirty‑eight.
One hundred and sixty‑one.
Inside the house, Aaron stood near the front door, holding a cardboard box overflowing with kitchen‑ ware: a yellow metal platter covered with roosters, an eggbeater, a worn‑out‑looking waffle maker with the price tag ($3.97) still visible.
“Well, well, well. Look who’s here.” Aaron grinned at me. My brother. Tanned and athletic, always ready with an easy grin. Sometimes Aaron seemed almost too good to be true.
Mom poked her head out of the kitchen. “Zu,” she said, and she winked at me. She has called me that forever. Zu is her nickname for Suzy, which funny, because Suzy is already a nickname for Suzanne. Once, a few years ago, I tried to get her to call me simply Z, the shortest nickname of all, but it never took. “We’re leaving for your appointment in fifteen minutes. Your dad’s meeting us there.”
Mom wore her work clothes, the pantsuit she wears whenever she shows houses. Her shoes were off, though, and her frizzy hair—I inherited my wild mop from her—had fallen out of its bun.
She placed some salad tongs on top of Aaron’s box.
“Ma,” Aaron said. “We don’t need any more stuff.”
“Hold on a sec,” she said. “I’ve got a cutting board I want to give you.” She squatted down on the kitchen floor, opened up a cabinet, and began rummaging.
“Rocco’s waiting, Mom,” Aaron said. He looked at me and rolled his eyes. I spun my finger next to my ear as if to say crazy.
“Hey,” he said, just to me now, as Mom rattled pots and pans in the kitchen. “School okay?”
He looked at me closely. “Suzy, middle school sucks,” he said. “You know that, right?”
I looked down at the floor.
“No, really, Suzy. When I was in seventh grade, all I wanted was to get the heck out of there. And I hadn’t even lost my best fr—” He stopped quickly and shook his head. “I’m just saying. It won’t always be this way.”
When I didn’t say anything, he added, “I promise, Suzy.”
And just like that, I felt a lump welling up in my throat.
Mom breezed out of the kitchen holding up a cracked wooden board, cut in the shape of a pig. “Found it! You must need a cutting board. Everyone needs a decent cutting board.”
She placed it on top of the box and Aaron laughed. “Hmmm,” he said, frowning at the pig‑shaped slab. “Maybe not that cutting board, though . . .”
Mom slapped him gently on the arm. “You be nice to your ol’ mom.”
“Okay, but can my ol’ mom let me get to the movies?”
“Yes, of course,” she said with a sigh. “I’ll set aside a pile of kitchen stuff and save it for you later.”
I walked to my room as my brother called down the hallway, “See ya next time, Suzy!”
I sat down at my desk and opened my notebook. I started a new count.
One . . . two . . . three . . . four . . .
Through the window, I watched Aaron walk toward Rocco.
Jellyfish were stinging every single second of every single minute of every single day.
Rocco stood, took the box from Aaron’s hands, and carried it over to the car.
They were stinging day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year.
Rocco set the box down in the backseat.
He picked up the pig cutting board and looked at Aaron. Aaron shrugged, as if saying, Rocco, That’s my mom for ya.
Then they got in the car and shut the doors. Through the windshield, I saw Rocco rumple Aaron’s hair. They looked like they were laughing. They leaned toward each other and kissed before Aaron backed the car out of the driveway. Then they were off—headed to the movies, to the kind of life people get to have when their words don’t ruin everything.
Seeing them, all that easy happiness, made me feel mixed up inside. It was like I could remember happiness, but also couldn’t remember it, all at the same time.
Mostly, though, I knew I didn’t deserve happiness.
Would never deserve it ever again.
Excerpted from the book THE THING ABOUT JELLYFISH by Ali Benjamin. Copyright © 2015 by Ali Benjamin. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.
This segment aired on September 28, 2015.