I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.The Benefits of Being an Octopus by Ann Braden
Published by Sky Pony Press on September 4, 2018
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.
There seems to have been a recent surge of quality when it comes to middle grade literature (see: Aru Shah & Breakout), and let me tell you: I am here for it. Middle grade books have all of the drama and intense subject matter of young adult literature, but none of the romantic entanglements. There is rarely, if ever, any sort of romance in middle grade literature, and if there is it’s simply a crush or a chaste first kiss. This tends to make the plots of middle grade move quicker, and leaves them more room to get their message across.
When I requested The Benefits of Being an Octopus on NetGalley, I was figuring I’d get something about strained family dynamics and puberty. I had no idea what I was actually getting myself into, and it was something that will stick with me for a while to come.
How I’d Describe This Book to a Friend
Zoey is a seventh grader, and if any book character can remind me of what it’s like to be in middle school, it’s Zoey. We feel her tension in the classroom, with the boy she has a crush on who rides her school bus. We see her hatred for speaking up in class, her disdain for the popular girls. But there is something different about Zoey that we never see in other literature: Zoey is poor.
We meet Zoey when she and her family are in flux – they are living with her mother’s latest boyfriend Lenny, sharing a cramped trailer between Lenny, his father, Zoey, her mom, and her three younger siblings (infant Hector, preschoolers Bryce and Aurora). Her mother works part time at the local pizza place, and they scrape by just enough day after day – but they have a roof over their head, and so Zoey doesn’t mind shoplifting cans of Easy Cheese from the local convenience store to keep her siblings occupied. She is their sole caretaker for most of their day, and she must keep them quiet so they don’t bother Lenny or his dad. This means that homework and school are not a priority. In fact, Zoey just doesn’t do it – she doesn’t have time. But her lifelong passion for the octopus – an animal that I have learned so much about through Zoey’s eyes! – leads her to fill out an assignment packet for once, to participate in a debate about what the superior animal is. And that little packet will change everything.
The Bottom Line
There are so many hot-button topics in this story, and they are wound seamlessly here through the eyes of a twelve year old. We see poverty, child neglect and abuse, the failed foster system. There is a subplot about gun control that I honestly cannot applaud the author for enough – I myself am fairly anti-gun, and I found myself agreeing with some characters in the book who felt the same way as I did. But when Zoey started thinking about all the reasons they’ve helped her and her friends – people who rely on hunting, her neighbor Silas whose father hunts to make ends meet and put food on the table – it made me question my own belief systems as a 29 year old woman. This is not easy to do.
I absolutely adored Zoey. I saw her mother’s quiet strength and dignity, the way she fell apart when she thought no one was looking and how she had to be strong for her children – how she always put them first, without fail. We see how growing up around anger affects children – little Bryce, who becomes stoic and withdrawn and just wants to fight everyone. We see Zoey’s best friend Fuschia, a byproduct of a failed foster system who is now stuck with her mother she hates and her mom’s boyfriend who is downright dangerous. And perhaps most influential of all, Zoey’s Social Studies teacher, who won’t let her fade into the backdrop. We meet all of these truly unique characters who are flawed, but not failing. And that’s an important distinction.
Zoey draws parallels constantly between herself and an octopus – she yearns to have more arms, to wrangle her siblings. She utilizes her octopus camouflage to blend in when she feels uncomfortable. And as odd as that might sound, let me tell you it works, and it works well. I am absolutely captivated by Zoey’s story, her family’s journey, and the love that surrounds her. If you work with students or kids, please pick this book up – honestly, you should pick it up no matter what. I promise you won’t regret it. Middle grade literature has set the bar very high for me in 2018, and I couldn’t be more pleased.
“Sometimes if you don’t have a jacket and you’re sitting next to someone who does, you feel colder. But sometimes, if the right person is wearing it, you feel warmer.”