Hi guys! This year, I’ve discovered upon a slew of life-changing Middle Grade books that have impacted me so dearly. I am so happy to say that The Benefits of Being an Octopus by Ann Braden is one of them, and today’s review displays how much it will change your perspective on what other people have to go through in their lives. It’s especially fitting since school is beginning for many people in these next few weeks, so I hope you’ll pick up this book for you or for your children/students.
About the Book
Some people can do their homework. Some people get to have crushes on boys. Some people have other things they’ve got to do.
Seventh-grader Zoey has her hands full as she takes care of her much younger siblings after school every day while her mom works her shift at the pizza parlor. Not that her mom seems to appreciate it. At least there’s Lenny, her mom’s boyfriend—they all get to live in his nice, clean trailer.
At school, Zoey tries to stay under the radar. Her only friend Fuchsia has her own issues, and since they’re in an entirely different world than the rich kids, it’s best if no one notices them.
Zoey thinks how much easier everything would be if she were an octopus: eight arms to do eight things at once. Incredible camouflage ability and steady, unblinking vision. Powerful protective defenses.
Unfortunately, she’s not totally invisible, and one of her teachers forces her to join the debate club. Even though Zoey resists participating, debate ultimately leads her to see things in a new way: her mom’s relationship with Lenny, Fuchsia’s situation, and her own place in this town of people who think they’re better than her. Can Zoey find the courage to speak up, even if it means risking the most stable home she’s ever had?
This moving debut novel explores the cultural divides around class and the gun debate through the eyes of one girl, living on the edges of society, trying to find her way forward.
Disclaimer: I received a free electronic ARC of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration. This will not affect my review in any way.
Never have I ever read a book in my life that I wanted to be pushed into the hands of readers, from students to educators, than The Benefits of Being an Octopus. Ann Braden’s vivid portrayal of a young girl trying to “get by” each day as her family—her single mother and her four siblings—are struggling with financial troubles and her mom’s abusive boyfriend is a reality that many children around both the nation and the world face everyday. I would write a longer introduction, but this book is so powerful and so relevant that I must start on the body of my review as soon as possible.
I have to first start out by saying that I saw myself very clearly in one character, Matt. Matt is guy in class who excels in virtually everything he does; he also has a good family with a steady income. When I first met him, I saw too much of myself in him—the student who goes above and beyond in assignments, from staying up too late to working at rapid speed. But Matt has one characteristic flaw that I know I have: Forgetting how blessed and privileged he is. While eating out at the pizzeria or drinking a peanut butter banana smoothie may not seem like a big deal to him, for Zoe those things seem like a distant reality. She has to deal power outages, clothes that are too small, and not always seeing her mother due to work.
The Benefits of Being an Octopus reminded me—in fact, it poked and prodded me with a gigantic tentacle—that not everyone is as blessed as I am. I am blessed to have two loving parents along with a great sister, a nice home, and three best friends who have my back. I have the ability to afford things I want, to travel places, and to go out. I am glad that I have discovered and honed by academic, musical, and extracurricular talents and abilities. But many of my fellow classmates don’t have these luxuries. Some always are out of the house, hanging out with friends or partying hard, because of their parents or their parental situation. Others have to work even two jobs on top of school to help provide for their families. There are many kids who can say that they’ve never set foot outside my small town, while I’ve visited countries halfway across the world. Some don’t own their own cars while I have one ready at a moment’s notice. While I can wiggle my way through a difficult calculus problem, there are classmates who struggle with algebra or geometry. Not everyone has the opportunities and the blessings I have. And I’m not saying my life is perfect at all. What am I saying is that there’s so much in my life, especially the little things, that I take too much for granted.
I know this review isn’t usually my standard format. I’m not reviewing over any of the story elements except for one gigantic overarching theme. This review is pretty much a personal reflection on Braden’s beautiful book. But I think that whenever I am compelled to write such a personal essay that helps me further understand and examine a key theme of a book, then that story must be very special. It must have struck a deep chord in my heart and changed my mindset. That is the mark of a five-star book. Certainly it is receiving one from me! It is one of the best Middle Grade novels—scratch that, books—I have ever read. No matter your background, no matter your age, you need to read this book. It will change your perspective as much as mine did. The Benefits of Being an Octopus will make readers become aware of the struggles that each person is going through, and it will instill in them the courage to speak up for, to be mindful to, and to reach out to those who may not have the blessings that the readers may experience. And for readers who may be in Zoe’s shoes, they will realize that they are not alone and that they have the power to change who they are.
Please note that I read from an uncorrected proof, so there could have been changes between this draft and the final publication.
About the Author
Ann Braden writes books about kids struggling to find their voice amidst the realities of life. Newbery award-winner Karen Hesse describes Ann’s debut middle grade novel The Benefits of Being an Octopus as “a compassionate look at poverty, hard choices, and defending one’s right to be treated humanely. A very fine first novel, written with a deft hand.” Ann 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, which now has chapters all over the country sending love postcards to those who are facing hate. Ann is the co-host of the children’s book podcast, “Lifelines: Books that Bridge the Divide,” along with Pakistani American author Saadia Faruqi, and is a former middle school teacher. Ann lives in southern Vermont with her husband, two children, and two insatiable cats named Boomer and Justice.
Are you excited for The Benefits of Being an Octopus? Do you like MG contemporary?
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