Thirteen-year-old Zoey and her mom and three younger siblings live with a man named Lenny. He owns a nice trailer. He’s bought her mom a new set of teeth. And he’s bent on undermining any self-confidence that Zoey’s mother ever had.
From the first few pages, the reader is pulled into Zoey’s world, an impoverished one that isn’t fair or just. A world that views Zoey and her family in a negative light. And at first Zoey buys into that world and her place in it. She buys into Lenny’s view that her mother is the one who can’t ever do anything right.
But then Zoey gradually gains a new perspective, one that comes on the heels of being forced to participate in debate club. She learns that discrediting or undermining your opponent by attacking them, not their argument, is a flawed tactic NOT to be used by debaters.
This is an excellent lesson in learning how to see through false arguments, think for yourself, and challenge those who would otherwise put you down. A lesson that many of us, not just middle schoolers, should take to heart because it happens so frequently in the real world.
There are harrowing moments, like when Zoey is late to meet her two siblings being dropped off by the Head Start bus along a busy road. Holding her toddler brother, Hector, on her hip, Zoey grabs her three-year-old sister who’s run into the the middle of the road in front of a line of honking cars. Then Zoey must calm her four-year old brother who’s having a panic attack.
“I quickly set Aurora and the diaper bag down on a snow-bank. ‘Don’t you dare move,’ I say to her. ‘Not an inch!’ My voice is shaking.
I turn back to rabid Bryce, flailing around on the shoulder of the road. I grab a rock off the ground with my Hector-free hand and close my fist around it. Then, I drop to my knees right next to Bryce and wrap him up with my arm. ‘Bryce, I have a rock for you that you need to hold.’
‘AHHHHHH!’ he keeps screaming. “AH! AH! AH! AHHHHH!’ He keeps trying to squirrel out from under my arm, but I squeeze tighter.
‘Bryce,’ I say again. ‘I have a rock for you that I need you to hold.’
I glance at Aurora, and she’s thankfully still sitting next to the diaper bag.
Bryce keeps squirming and screaming, but it’s weaker now than it was.
‘Bryce, I have a rock for you that I need you to hold.’
Bryce sinks against me. I open my hand so he can see the rock. He takes it in his right hand.”
The extended metaphor of Zoey imagining herself as an octopus works beautifully here. Early on she wishes she had eight arms, because clearly she needs them.
The rationale behind her knowledge of octopus anatomy and behavior is presented in a way that also shows us her family’s poverty and how she’s at a disadvantage at school. Kudos to the author for weaving together important information that doesn’t feel like a backstory information dump.
The author, Ann Braden, takes on issues including poverty, psychological abuse, physical violence, gun control and violence, hunting, cultural/class divides, and self-esteem, with a gentle touch, one that’s very appropriate for middle grade.
Readers will find themselves rooting for Zoey to succeed. And when she finally figures out a way to help her mother and their family, along with her best friend, it’s not a perfect solution, but one that rings soundly of real world truth.
Highly recommended! (I’m betting this book will be in the running for the Newbery.)
More about Braden from the book jacket: A former middle school teacher, she founded GunSenseVT, a grassroots group focused on championing the common ground on the issue of guns in Vermont, which recently helped pass landmark gun violence prevention legislation. She also founded the Local Love Brigade, now with chapters throughout the country, sending loving postcards to those who face hate. AND she co-hosts the podcast, “Lifelines: Books that Bridge the Divide,” along with Pakistani-American author Saadia Faruqi.
TITLE: The Benefits of Being an Octopus
AUTHOR: Anne Braden
Publisher: Sky Pony Press, 2018