The Benefits of Being an Octopus by Ann Braden – Review by Tracy Murphy
Ann Braden’s forthcoming and debut middle grade novel, The Benefits of Being an Octopus, sank right into me. Set in Vermont, Braden has crafted a unique story that highlights the realities of living in poverty, being both child and caregiver, and the chaos involved in the day-to-day existence of being a middle school girl. The novel has a lot of classic elements found within the genre, yet also offers an original and interesting character perspective.
Readers are introduced to the protagonist, Zoey, a seventh grader who doesn’t hand in her homework, is constantly taking care of young siblings, likes watching football, and deeply longs for any trace of normalcy and security. One thing Zoey does know for sure? She knows about octopuses. And, as Zoey points out, octopuses — rather than octopi — is the correct expression when describing a group of these magnificent creatures.
Right away, I found Zoey to be an interesting and likeable character. I was emotionally engaged with the character, often feeling all the feels as I learned about her family dynamic. Zoey, her younger siblings (from different dads), her mother, and her mother’s boyfriend, along with his father, all live in a tidy and well-kept trailer. I felt like I knew Zoey from the start of the novel. Zoey is also the first character I’ve read to be involved in a debate team. Perhaps one of the most striking and notable traits of the novel is Braden’s ability as a storyteller to break down assumptions and expectations of what a Vermont girl’s life is like. Often considered a liberal utopia where cows, Bernie Sanders, and Ben & Jerry’s are beloved in glorious harmony, Vermont is actually a politically and economically diverse location. Readers will notice how both of these – economics and politics – play an integral role in the life of young Zoey and those around her. From class issues to gun debate, Braden’s story blends and paints a more holistic and realistic depiction of what life can look like in Vermont. Along with politics and economics, readers will see and feel the heart that is central in this story, and the beauty that comes from finding your own voice.
Braden’s writing style will appeal to both the adult and child reader. This isn’t the kind of middle grade novel where lyrical and magical prose sweep you off your feet – rather, Braden has written a raw and to-the-point experience that readers will connect with from the very first page. Despite Zoey’s desire to blend in with her surroundings (haven’t we all been there?) there isn’t a lot of hiding in this story. Readers see an upfront and honest young girl. To be frank, I found this vulnerability to be entirely refreshing within the genre. The characters in Octopus are the people who are around you – they are the kids in your classroom, your neighbor, maybe a young version of yourself. The first person narrative gives an intimacy that will make all readers feel like they really know Zoey — something I credit Braden with is her ability to write with an authentic and organic voice. Zoey’s voice is full, complex, honest, and unique.
I would recommend this book to middle schoolers, parents, counselors, and educators alike. I particularly think educators will find this novel to be an eye-opening view into the kind of life Zoey leads.
Want to find out a bit more? Here are a few links to a great book trailer, a giveaway, and an educators guide.
Tracy Murphy is excited to once again write for Nerdy Book Club. Tracy is an avid reader, knitter, spinner, musician, and overall nerd. Recently, Tracy graduated with her M.A. with a concentration in Transformative Language Arts from Goddard College. She has recently started a new bookish Instagram account at MrsMurphyReads. Tracy lives in Southern Vermont with her husband and two cats.