I needed The Benefits of Being an Octopus when I was 12.
Twelve-year old Zoey has bigger problems than seventh grade. She lives with her mom and three younger siblings in her mom’s boyfriend Lenny’s trailer. Lenny’s trailer is nice and clean, but it comes at a price. What Zoey really needs is to be an octopus, someone with eight arms to wrestle her siblings and who can squirt black ink to get away quickly.
THE SHORT VERSION
Teachers who read The Benefits of Being an Octopus will see their students in it. It’s sad, it’s real, and you probably can’t do much to change it. I love this book and encourage all middle school librarians to have it on their shelves.
WHAT I LIKED
The characters. Well, I didn’t care for Zoey’s mom there for awhile, but she *somewhat* redeems herself as the story goes on. Zoey is clever and resourceful. Her schoolwork does not show how hard she works, every single day, just to get by.
Like Zoey, her friend Fuschia has her own serious problems with her own mother’s abusive boyfriend. Fuschia is well-drawn, and I’d love to read a book from her perspective. What else is going on in her life that we didn’t get to read about in Benefits?
While I didn’t read this one compulsively, I did read the last half in one sitting. There is a lot of day-to-day activity, especially as activities lead to letdowns, disappointments, struggles, and obstacles. Zoey rightly points out that the simplest activities for others are an enormous struggle for her family. For example, when Zoey reluctantly joins an after-school club, she has to do all kinds of schedule manipulations and ride-sharing.
The many flaws in American social services are clear in this book. The system fails Zoey, her family, and her friend Fuschia many times.
I liked how the author presents multiple sides of the gun control debate without taking any particular stance on the issue. In the Author’s Note, Braden mentions that she met with various sides of the debate and also went target shooting with someone to research this issue. It’s not easy to discuss such a hotly-debated issue in a story and remain neutral, but Braden pulls it off beautifully.
WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE
Zoey steals small items a couple of times in the story. That’s definitely realistic, but this may lead students to justify theft in their minds. Zoey didn’t need any of the things she stole. It was small luxuries like treats for her siblings or a hair clip for her friend. Zoey didn’t express remorse for the theft, she never tried to make amends, and she was never caught. The issue remained unresolved and unaddressed by the end.
Zoey and her family default to white, but Zoey’s best friend Fuschia is African-American. Most students at Zoey’s school seems to be white, but one girl who Zoey admires (Kyra) is African-American. Kyra brings up issues like police violence and affirmative action in their debate club.
This is not illustrated. Tiny octopus silhouettes separate sections of the chapters.
LIBRARIANS WILL WANT TO KNOW
Themes: abuse, controlling behavior, gun violence, single mothers who take up with abusive/controlling men for financial security, poverty, responsibility, siblings, telling a trusted adult when something is wrong, single mothers, debate team, gender roles, octopuses
Would adults like The Benefits of Being an Octopus? yes, but it will make adults who work with children sad
Would I buy this for my high school library? No; it’s clearly middle grade.
Would I buy this for my middle school library?: YES! I’d booktalk it like crazy, too.
Violence: medium; Zoey’s mother gets angry and slaps Zoey across the face. The mom’s boyfriend is controlling and verbally abusive. The middle school goes on lockdown due to gunshots in the school parking lot (no injuries).
Drugs/Alcohol: very mild; one adult smokes cigarettes
Other: Zoey occasionally steals small treats from stores. She shows no remorse and is never caught.
BOOKTALK OR DISPLAY THIS WITH:
Do you have Benefits in your library? Is it popular? Do you see Zoey and Fuschia in your students?