Happy Holidays everyone! Since many of us are looking for holiday gifts for our middle schoolers, this is part I of a series of posts about STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts & Math). The first few posts over the next few weeks will focus on STEM in books. The Thing about Jellyfish was a National Book Award Finalist for Young People’s Literature this year and embeds science processes in the engaging plot about a young person coping with grief. In doing so, author Ali Benjamin puts the spotlight on the fact that science is very much a human endeavor used to solve problems and answer questions. As stated in the New York Times Book Review (Oct, 2015):
“With all the emphasis today’s educators and policy makers are placing on the STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — you would think there would be a steady stream of novels capable of inspiring young girls to consider a future in those fields. Not so. Such books come around so infrequently that special attention should be paid to them when they do. One that fits the bill is Ali Benjamin’s heartfelt and fascinating fiction debut, “The Thing About Jellyfish,” which has been nominated for a 2015 National Book Award.”
Read the rest of this review.
Here’s my interview with Ali, who was gracious enough to take the time to chat with me about her book, her stance on STEM, and her writing process. Make sure you read the About Ali section at the bottom of this post to hear her favorite books that she reads to her daughters!
KD: What do you hope for readers of The Thing About Jellyfish to walk away thinking about and feeling?
AB: First and foremost, I hope it makes readers feel connected — to other people, certainly. But also to some part of themselves that perhaps they don’t always take the time to nurture — the contemplative, curious parts. Also, I hope they feel a little more connected to the world around them, including the natural world. The book doesn’t start off in the most joyful place; it begins with a death, and with a child’s feeling very, very alone. But over the course of the book, Suzy, the main character, discovers that grief can open up the world, that the world’s very real darkness can bring into sharp relief all of its extraordinary beauty. Above all, I guess that’s what I’m hoping to leave readers with: a tiny glimpse of that beauty.
KD: What are some of the science connections that you write about in the plot? How important is the science to your story?
AB: The book is about many things; it’s about grief, friendship, climate change, cruelty, regret, and growing up, among other things. But each of these themes are connected by a simple question: what happens when we reach the outer limit of our own understanding? What happens when the answers we have are no longer sufficient to explain what we’re experiencing, or what we’re seeing around us? How do we begin to find new answers? Scientists are the ones standing at that boundary between what we know, and all that’s still unknown. Scientific inquiry is exploration of the unknown. That’s pretty exciting, I think.
The book weaves in real-life researchers and plenty of kid-friendly scientific facts, including the scale of the universe, zombie ants, the way atoms combine and recombine in new ways…and of course the biology and ecology of jellyfish. But science is woven into the book’s very structure. It’s divided into parts that represent different elements of a lab report. Each section (hypothesis, background, variables, etc.) serves as a metaphor for the story that unfolds in that part.
Both scientists and non-scientists are ultimately asking similar questions: who are we? Why are we here? What impact do we have in this world? But of course, not all questions can be answered scientifically. Suzy is trying to answer a non-scientific question — how do I move past something devastating? — using only the scientific method. That’s part of the tension of this book: there are some places that science can’t take her. What she needs, in the end, turns out not to be a scientific explanation, but rather love and forgiveness.
KD: What kind of research did you do when writing or before writing?
AB: As the title suggests, the book contains a great deal of information about jellies. My curiosity about these animals was sparked by a visit to the New England Aquarium. At first, I simply wanted to read about them. I searched for a book that could tell me more, but at the time, there were none. (Note: a good adult nonfiction book, Stung! On Jellyfish Blooms and the Future of the Ocean, by Lisa-ann Gershwin, Ph.D., has since been published). Since there were no books, I started reading every article I could find online. What I found was fascinating: jellies are some of the oldest living animals on earth, their biology is fascinating, and they are a terrifying bellwether for everything that is happening to our planet. I had no idea where I was going with this research. I simply wanted to know more. That’s really where it started.
Most of the non-jellyfish scientific concepts present in the book had been rattling around my brain already. For years, I’ve collected random scientific facts and ideas like they’re pebbles; I stumble upon them, pick them up, then place them in my pocket, not quite sure why. I have no idea what I’m going to do with them, but still I tuck them away, occasionally taking them out to examine again. I was so glad that this book gave me a place to go with them! Once I knew the book would be published, I did some more research to confirm my facts were as reliable as could be, and that they ultimately came from peer-reviewed sources. We also hired an incredibly thorough fact-checker, just to be sure.
Many lament the internet as a force for misinformation, and that’s a very, very real concern. But for a layperson who’s interested in science, it can also be a treasure trove. Most of nature’s greatest mysteries are invisible to the naked eye. It’s hard for a non-scientist to explore our universe with much depth. But today, there’s so much good information, so many big ideas, available with a few clicks of one’s fingers. Many of these ideas are presented in interesting ways, too. For example, I’m a big fan of Brain Pickings, a web site curated by Maria Popova. The things that she covers often represent an intersection of science and the arts, in a way that enhances the beauty of each.
But it’s important to note that there’s an awful lot of bunk on the internet, too. If you’re not careful, you can go just as deeply into the bunk. That’s why it’s absolutely critical that we teach kids from a very young age how to evaluate the information they’re presented with. I suspect that’s probably the most important thing we can teach them now that both information and misinformation are so readily accessible.
KD: Science in books for this age group is sadly most frequently relegated to the Science section – where one can find many titles that are filled with all sorts of facts. Richard Duschl (a science education researcher) refers to this as final form science which is in striking contrast to the logic-in-use used by science practitioners as they solve problems and answer questions. Unfortunately, this final form science is the version most commonly shared with people via media, books, and classrooms. Can you share why you embedded science in action in your story, or another useful dichotomy is logic-in-use vs reconstructed logic? I love that you show logic-in-use because it’s a lot more interesting and I think it’s a wonderful thing to do because it presents science authentically. I am hoping other writers will emulate you!
AB: When I started writing about jellyfish, I actually started with more traditional nonfiction — what you call final form. And it was okay, but it felt diminished, like it didn’t capture the sense of wonder and discovery and expansiveness that I myself felt as I explored the topic. Separately, I’d been working on a novel about a girl and her brother. Then one day, it occurred to me that I could combine the science exploration with the very human story. Only then did the science start feeling like it had real meaning, that it was more than a collection of facts.
KD: Any background on other books you’ve written that you’d like to share?
AB: I was the writer for the memoirs of professional soccer goalkeeper Tim Howard and anti-bullying advocate and HIV educator Paige Rawl. I loved working on those, because both of them had something important to say — something that I believed the world was ready to hear.
In Tim’s memoir, The Keeper, for example, he describes having Tourette syndrome and obsessive-compulsive disorder. His record-breaking success as a goalkeeper isn’t because he “overcame” these differences; it’s because of them. I’ve always been really interested in the workings of the brain, and how things that are seeming disabilities in some settings have an incredibly beautiful flip side. They can become extraordinary abilities if you put that person in the right situation. Since The Keeper came out last year, I know Tim has been approached by many parents of non-neurotypical children, kids with dyslexia or ADHD or Tourette, for example. These parents have reached out to say that Tim’s story helped change their perspective on themselves. His story helped them ask the question, “what’s the positive flip side of the way my brain works? In what settings might it actually shine?”
Paige’s young adult memoir, Positive, also filled a really important void. Paige was bullied for having been born with HIV. Bullying is in the news all the time, but it’s almost always in the news because there’s been a tragedy, a suicide. That’s the pattern you see in the news: bullying followed by suicide. You see this enough times, and it begins to seem like suicide is the inevitable outcome of bullying. That’s a very, very dangerous narrative. I thought it was important to show another side: someone who was bullied and emerged stronger and more resilient. I am also old enough to remember when AIDS was first discovered, and the fear that surrounded it. We’ve come a long way. HIV/AIDS is a very different disease than it used to be; thanks to new medicines, it’s more of a chronic illness. That’s a remarkable transformation, one that’s been incredible to witness.
KD: What is your own relationship to Science or STEM?
AB: There’s a character in The Thing About Jellyfish, Justin, who is curious, but also messy and imprecise and easily distracted. That was me as a child. As a result I found science (as I understood it then) tedious: it seemed to be about memorizing formulas and filling out lab reports in an exact manner. Mind you, I was fascinated by the natural world, I was crazy about animals, and I loved looking up at the stars and asking questions. But still, I assumed that science couldn’t possibly be for me. I also thought, back then, that a person had to choose one path or another: you were either creative and artistic, or you were scientific. You couldn’t be both. So I stopped taking science classes.
It took me many decades to realize that my understanding of science was all wrong. Science isn’t about memorizing and regurgitating. It’s actually about exploring. The world around us is pretty astonishing, and science is about discovering all of those astonishing things. To do science well does require precision, but it also requires imagination and wonder. I wish I’d learned that much sooner.
KD:Advice to writers?
AB: Nobody will ever tell you that they’re waiting for your book. Write it anyway.
KD: Anything else that you’d like to share about yourself, activities you like to do with your kids (if you have any), advice for teachers, etc.
AB: I have two kids: Meredith is 14 right now, and Charlotte is 9. When my older daughter hit the middle school years, I was surprised to discover how much I genuinely enjoy middle schoolers. I love them. I love their energy and their vitality. I love that they are grappling with big issues. I love that even though they are beginning to understand the uglier parts of life, they still believe so deeply in fairness. I love that they are so quick to laugh, and to be silly. I didn’t necessarily enjoy middle schoolers when I was in middle school myself, but now I think they’re a blast.
KD: Advice for teachers?
AB: I have no advice, only thanks.
Click here to read interview with Ali Benjamin from the National Book Foundation site
I always say that I’m a good generalist — I enjoy a range of things, and bounce between interests pretty regularly. Living in the Berkshires in western Mass, I enjoy hiking, museums, bookstores, and even settling in for some television sitcoms now and then (I’m a fan of shows with smart, funny women — Parks and Rec, for example). I used to run a lot, but have been sidelined due to chronic injuries, much to the disappointment of my dog, a semi-neurotic Australian shepherd named Mollie. My kids are very different — Merrie, age 14, is an uber-extrovert who wants to be out in the world, doing things with other people all the time. My younger daughter, Charlotte, age 9, is much more introverted; she generally wants time alone to read or play or climb trees or make up games or play Minecraft. It’s actually pretty hard to find things that they both want to do at the same time. Both like the beach, swimming, skiing, movies, and baking brownies, though — we’ve got those things going for us!
Honestly, one of my favorite memories of both of them is reading the (mostly appropriate) adult novel, Einstein’s Dreams, to them as they fell asleep. This book isn’t so much a story as a fictional collage; each chapter features a dream that Einstein might have had in the days leading up to his discovery of the theory of relativity… and each dream imagines a world where time moves differently from the one we live in. For example, in one world, time moves backwards, while in another, cause and effect are separated. It’s wonderful book for all ages, so rich in imagination. It captivated both of my kids on a really deep level. Other favorite books of all time (for adults) include Teaching a Stone to Talk by Annie Dillard, Don Delillo’s Underworld, and All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. Favorite kids books are probably the classics Harriet the Spy, and from Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. More recently, Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me is terrific — it’s got great heart, as well as a time-traveling mystery.