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: the inseparable early years, Franny’s pulling away, Zu’s increasing social isolation, and a final attempt by Zu to honor a childhood pact. The author gently paints Zu as a bit of an oddball; not knowing what hair product to use leaves her feeling “like a separate species altogether,” and knowing too many species of jellyfish earns her the nickname Medusa. Surrounded by the cruelty of adolescence, 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. (Fiction. 12 & up)