Wednesday, January 9, 2019

The Benefits of Being an Octopus by Ann Braden

Zoey has to deal with too many other things in her life to be overly concerned about school.  She has to take care of three younger siblings while dealing with bullying at school because her clothes aren't clean most of the time.  Currently, her family doesn't have to worry about food or housing because they are living with her mom's boyfriend Lenny, although her mom does seem to be more distant than she used to be. When Zoey's teacher tells her to prepare for a debate by choosing an animal she thinks is the best, Zoey knows immediately that the octopus is her choice.  Although she forgets to bring in her homework, Zoey's teacher sees something in Zoey and strongarms her into joining the debate team, even though she doesn't participate much.  But as she listens to the techniques for discrediting your opponent, Zoey begins to see how those tactics are evident in her home life.

This is so wonderfully written with several passages that made me stop and think.  Although Zoey's family is food secure at the moment, they are still fairly poor and Braden illustrates the disparity between her life and that of her classmates in such a quiet, but powerful, way.  The one passage that really stood out to me was Zoey watching a boy leave his house with a smoothie that his mother pressed into his hand at the last minute.

I try to picture my mom pulling herself out of bed to make me a smoothie because I'm tired in the morning.  As if she wasn't exhausted.  As if she didn't have to take care of Hector.  As if Frank wouldn't throw a fit for getting woken up by a blender.  As if we had a working blender.  As if we had bananas.  As if.

Wow.  The way she lays out all of Zoey's problems in one paragraph, narrowing it down to something as simple as just having a banana available says so much more than a sentence talking about all the things that have to balanced to keep her life running somewhat smoothly.  Although Zoey talks about her life being more stable than she has known in the past, it's clear that things are precarious.

Being poor is a big part of Zoey's life but that is only part of the picture.  She also has too many parenting responsibilities, bullying at school, and an absentee mother with a new boyfriend. There are so many threads with which my students will relate.  The ending is too neat but with all the worry throughout the story, I am pleased to see hope there, even if it's more than is probably realistic.