The Benefits of Being an Octopus

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 04 Sep 2018

Member Reviews

I received an ARC of this book from Sky Pony Press via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Thank you!

This book was incredible. I’m surprised that this was Ann Braden’s debut novel and a middle-grade!

“That’s one of the things about the people on that beautiful tropical island: they can’t see who’s floating about in the ocean around them. Or maybe they can and they just choose not to look. I don’t know. I’ve never been there.”

We followed Zoey in this story, a 7th grader with many unfortunate circumstances. She lives in her mums boyfriends trailer where she shares a room with her two younger siblings. She lives in poverty and each day works through the possibility of the power being turned off or having very little food to provide a meal for her family. Not only does Zoey struggle at home - sometimes she struggles to finish her homework on time due to looking after her siblings and helping her mum - she also has issues at school.

The kids at school don’t understand her - they label and bully her and others like her or completely ignore her. They don’t see the bigger picture other than the ‘tropical island’ they live on, they don’t have to worry about the things Zoey does. 

Everything changes when Zoey finally finds her voice in debate club after hiding away behind the idea of a camouflaging octopus. It seems up to this point that being an octopus would help her - hiding away, having multiple arms to juggle her siblings and slinking through sticky situations. 

This was such a good read for readers of varying ages - it tackles many situations that are becoming increasingly abundant in society. An important read for tackling hard situations and speaking out against wrong doings and written in a beautiful way.
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The Benefits of Being an Octopus is a riveting Young Adult novel. In the acknowledgements Ann Braden reveals this book was inspired by the need for students in poverty to view themselves in literature. Braden also dedicates the book to her single mother, and those two details inform how she was able to craft such a heartfelt, genuine book.

Zoey is a 7th grader with three younger siblings. Her single mother has moved them into her boyfriend's trailer. There's never enough money and her mother is stretched to near breaking, so Zoey is expected to assist with childcare. As I have witnessed in real life, children faced with such issues mature quickly because they have to. The realities of their life are raw; there is a constant fear of overdrawn accounts and past due bills, with a reliance on public transportation or your own two feet because having a working car of your own is a luxury.

Zooey repeatedly watched a show about octopuses and found herself drawn to their abilities, and references are naturally worked in throughout the book:

"If I were an octopus, things would be so much easier. I'd have one arm to wipe Aurora's nose. Two more for holding both kids' hands when I pick them up from the Head Start bus stop to keep Bryce from wandering into the street after some rock he's spotted. One to hold Hector and his diaper bag on the afternoons when my mom works at the Pizza Pit. One to adjust my shirt because it doesn't really fit and it can get too revealing if I'm not paying attention, and I don't want to be 'that girl.' One so I could do my homework at least some of the time if I wanted. One to pick up the Cheerios that are always on the floor. And the last one to swipe a can of Easy cheese from the Cumberland Farms convenience store. Because little snowmen out of Easy Cheese are the most magical thing little kids have ever seen. And Easy Cheese letters on a saline is totally different than having to eat regular saltines."

We witness the value of teachers and the pivotal role they can play to notice what's going on, in spite of a student's hopes of fading into the background and being invisible; they can come alongside struggling students and challenge and support them. Zoey has one particular teacher who won't let her fall between the cracks, instead urging her to "suck it up" -- to see her circumstances for what they are but not to wallow in them. Instead, look at your life honestly but make changes. Zoey is stretched by this teacher and her participation in debate club, and her decisions have pivotal impacts on her mother and two close friends.

This book made me ache and be anxious because the text feels genuine. Without revealing spoilers, there isn't a magical, unrealistic happy ending, but there is improvement and hope for the future. As I also read Educated, this was a complementary pairing to that memoir about poverty and education. The fact that they worked so well together further reinforces how well written The Benefits of Being an Octopus is.

Research has demonstrated that reading a book creates empathy; the mental connections are as if the reader has lived through the experiences themselves. With that knowledge in hand, this book would be a valuable tool in classrooms and could create a lasting impact on students to see each other as they truly are and to bring awareness to the varied experiences they have when they enter the doors of a school.
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I found the ARC for this book on NetGalley after a friend raved about it. I admire the way the book deftly deals with many important issues while still being appropriate for middle level students. As a teacher, I probably had many students dealing with these same issues, only I did not realize the delicate balance going on in their lives, whether it's waiting for the EBT payment to be able to buy more food, stowing possessions in trash bags, juggling jobs and transportation, or students too busy helping with child care to do their homework.

The octopus theme was very cleverly handled, although a bit less at the end, and Zoey applying what she learned in debate club to the way her mother was being verbally abused was an interesting connection. I can't think of many books for students dealing so much with verbal abuse rather than physical violence. It was also nice to have another book with a teacher as a positive role model; Ms. Rochambeau was awfully patient with Zoey. My only quibble is that things seem to wrap up a bit too easily with Zoey in charge; was what she said in her outburst at debate club all that provocative to earn so much admiration? Still, as the author said, she wanted to write a book where many of our students could see themselves and relate.
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Wow! Wow! Wow!  This book was just amazing.  AMAZING!  It hooked me right from the start and did not disappoint throughout the book.  I always worry about giving away too much information when writing a review.  Let’s just say that this book dealt with some issues that I hadn’t seen before in a middle grade novel.  While this book may be slightly too sophisticated for my grade 3 readers, I could definitely see it in older grades.  This book touched me like Out of My Mind, Fish In A Tree, Rain Reign etc.  This book definitely touched my heart and soul.  I cannot believe this is Ann Braden’s first book.  This is definitely one to add to your library!
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Wow, what a powerful book for teenagers and about teenagers. If I could I would give this so much more than just 5 stars. It has the quality of an award-winning short story and a pace of a thriller. Spot-on in every aspect.

It isn't often when an adult writer actually manages to write for young readers in a way that both appeals and is also very insightful. This book made me laugh and cry tears as big as kidney beans. There were so many broken strings inside Zoey and myself...memories of my own childhood kept creeping up like those eight tentacles constantly mentioned or hinted at.

It's like Zoey says at the beginning:

"If I were an octopus, things would be so much easier. I'd have one arm to wipe Aurora's nose. Two more for holding both kids' hands when I pick them up from the Head Start bus stop to keep Bryce from wandering into the street after some rock he's spotted. One to hold Hector and his diaper bag on the afternoons when my mom works at the Pizza Pit. One to adjust my shirt because it doesn't really fit and it can get too revealing if I'm not paying attention, and I don't want to be "that girl." One so I could do my homework at least some of the time if I wanted. One to pick up the Cheerios that are always on the floor. And the last to swipe a can of Easy Cheese from the Cumberland Farms convenience store."

And all this coming from a 7-grader's head...

OK, my life wasn't this bad in 7th grade exactly. More like after I graduated high school and single-handedly moved to New York, leaving my family, my language and everything else I knew about the world (mostly because it was all bad and hopeless) behind. THEN my life took on a spin much like Zoey's, so I can totally associate.

This book is a fantastic portrait of what a teenage girl goes through internally and externally. I would HIGHLY recommend it, firstly, to parents of teenagers, and of course to all the curious young readers as well. 

I can't imagine a reader who wouldn't fall in love with someone like Zoey.

Big thank you to Sky Pony Press and NetGalley for the chance to read this amazing journey. This review is my honest opinion.
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This was an absolutely fantastic middle grade book dealing with gun issues and domestic violence. I literally could not put this book down and finished it in a day. I've always had a heart for students who struggle with their home life and making it paycheck to paycheck and this book does a great job dealing with that issue and bringing it to light. I cannot wait to share this book with kids at school. I think a lot of students will relate to this and will find the courage within to do what needs to be done.
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I was given an ARC of thus novel through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. 

I absolutely love this middle grades novel.  Zoey is loveable, and my heart ached for her perseverance in light of her difficult circumstances.   I believe that this would be an excellent novel to read as a class to help students empathize with others.
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Zoey is the eldest of her mum's children and since learning about octopuses from an old documentary she watched figures she could do with being one as she has to run around her siblings, Hector, Bryce and Aurora whilst their mum works.

They all live in a trailer park with Lenny, Hector's dad and their mum where they struggle for money as her mum's a waitress. Kenny is quite scathing towards their mum especially as he knows she works with Connor, a kind man at the pizza parlour she works in whom likes Zoey and the other kids.

Zoey has just started middle school with Fuchsia her friend where she learns about a debate team and her teacher insists on her taking part. Whilst in school shots are fired outside, a gunman whom Zoey later realises she knew of as he knows Fuchsia.

Neither girls home lives are secure it stable, happy ones and so each girl asks their mum about an idea they have to leave the controlling father figures in their lives well away from them but instead all survive together. They just need to speak up and out to the police and courts, if they can persuade them that is...

The book raises the issue of domestic abuse and all the spectrum of can occur from physical threats and acts to emotional abuse verbally and trying to control a person. We see how it impacts the whole family and Zoey has a lot to cope with hence her feeling comforted by her octopus passion as she knows how she could do with enough arms to do everything she has to do but envy them as they don't have to juggle school work or look after their siblings.  It was nice to see she found debate club a way for some own time and be able to connect more with other students while developing a passion.

Raw and intense look at life as a grown up but while still being a child yourself.

Many thanks to the publishers for allowing me to review this book for them!
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