4 ½ stars for The Benefits of Being an Octopus by Ann Braden. This is a thoughtful look at poverty and that not everything in the world is black and white.
Zoey is a 7th grader who has a lot of challenges in her life. While everyone else manages to get their homework turned in on time and create projects with poster board and glitter, Zoey can barely stay afloat. As soon as school is over, it is her responsibility to take care of her 3 siblings, one of them being an infant. Their family lives in the trailer of her mother’s current boyfriend, and they know that they are only visitors. Lenny gives them a place to live, but isn’t always kind and makes Zoey’s mom feel “less than.”
When an assignment is given for them to choose the animal that they think is the best and be able to defend it, Zoey knows that this is something she can do. Zoey is obsessed with octopi – they can camouflage themselves, have multiple arms to grab things all at once, and they are amazing escape artists, throwing a spray of ink at their predators. But while she often tries to avoid being noticed, she is afraid to speak and has nothing to throw back at the people that are cruel to her. When her social studies teacher takes a special interest in her and makes her come to the debate club, she slowly starts to realize that her ideas and thoughts are important too. It is also the first time that anyone seen Zoey as important and that she doesn’t have to settle for life the way it is.
“But you do have a choice. You make choices every day, and maybe you can’t see how they could affect your future, but they do.”
The debate club allows Zoey to think about things differently, especially when they are assigned a debate topic of whether or not Americans should be able to own guns, and she is one of the only people to see both sides.
This is a really great read. Zoey is one of the many kids who get lost in the shuffle. She is used to the notion that no one ever sees her as being important, until Ms. Rochambeau does. Ms. Rochambeau is something of her fairy godmother who understands what Zoey is going through because her childhood was similar. Ms. Rochambeau opens Zoey’s eyes to the fact that she has to take an active part in her life.
“Since life isn’t fair, it’s often up to us to balance it out.”
We don’t know what the lives of everyone around us are like and there are students like Zoey, Fuchsia, and Silas everywhere. We don’t know who gets fresh, healthy food and who is surviving on whatever was on sale. For some kids, home isn’t safe and their future is unknown. And it can be an easy choice to target the kid who likes hunting as the one who shot a gun in the parking lot. I love that Ms. Rochambeau helps Zoey find her voice and to see that someone who always puts you down is not a person to be around.