MY LIFE IN THE FISH TANK, by Barbara Dee, Aladdin, Sept. 15, 2020, Hardcover, $17.99 (ages 9 and up)
Barbara Dee’s My Life in the Fish Tank is one of my favorite books of 2020.
At the center of the story is 12-year-old Zinnia (Zinny for short). When Zinny’s brother Gabriel gets in a car accident at college, the whole family is set on edge. Gabriel didn’t just get in an accident. Things haven’t been right in a long time, and Zinny’s beloved older brother is diagnosed with a mental illness.
In a flash, the entire Manning family’s world is turned upside down. Zinny’s parents want Zinny, her 16-year-old sister, Scarlett, and her 8-year-old brother, Aiden, to keep Gabriel’s bipolar disorder “private.”
That means Zinny is suddenly keeping secrets from her two best friends, her teachers, her classmates, everyone. Zinny can’t even talk about it in Lunch Club, a group run by the school guidance counselor, where she’s supposed to feel free to say anything.
If not for her school science class, Zinny would have nothing to look forward to. She’s got a cool teacher and cool class experiments, and she’s got a chance at spot in a marine biology camp over the summer. But how can Zinny move forward if her family is still stuck in one place?
I don’t remember a lot of middle-grade books from my own childhood that touched on mental illness, let alone made it a key element. I’m sure there were a few, but not like there are today. Now, authors are not only bringing it to the fore, authors like Barbara Dee are bringing it in a powerful, tangible way.
Zinny’s story bounces around a bit, with some chapters flashing back to before Gabriel’s accident. These moments of reflection feel like natural moments in Zinny’s journey. As she learns more, she looks back at events and sees clues pertaining to her brother.
After the accident, Zinny becomes a mini adult, taking on tasks her parents normally would and should be doing. She’s making grocery lists, trying to cook and helping Aiden with his homework. But Zinny is still a child. And she has considerable fears of her own. She is weighed down in the most authentic and heartbreaking way.
Despite taking on a heavy topic, Barabara Dee has managed to lace My Life in a Fish Tank with light and hope. Humor is sprinkled throughout and there are strong adult and teen/tween supporting characters that flesh out the story.
My Life in a Fish Tank is a book many readers can relate to and one that will help others who have not directly been impacted by mental illness to understand what their friends might be going through.
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