The Benefits of Being an Octopus by Ann Braden
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
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 was a powerful book about the effects of poverty on the life of one girl, her siblings, her mother, and her friend. There seem to be few books with main characters who live in small-town poverty, and I imagine a lot of kids will be able to see themselves in Zoey.
Zoey often imagines herself an octopus, with the ability to camouflage herself and with eight legs to care for her younger siblings and still finish her homework. Zoey carries a lot of responsibility for a twelve-year-old, which leaves her very little time to do schoolwork or even be a kid herself. But even through all of this responsibility and stress, Zoey grows braver through her membership in the school's debate club. I particularly liked the way she learned to stand up for not only herself, but for other people.
I recommend this book for readers of all stripes. It's very well-written but also fast-paced. A must for classrooms and libraries.