The more books I read by Barbara Dee, the more of a treasure I think she is. She tackles difficult social topics in a way that is engaging and relatable! I am excited to share My Life In The Fish Tank, her wonderful new book. Read on to see why I love this story.
I received an advanced copy of the book from the publisher via Media Masters Publicity; all opinions are my own. This post contains some affiliate links that may earn me a commission if you purchase through them.
My Life in the Fish Tank by Barbara Dee
Published by Simon and Schuster on September 15, 2020
Genres: Young Adult, Social Themes, Depression & Mental Illness
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From acclaimed author of Maybe He Just Likes You and Halfway Normal comes a powerful and moving story of learning how to grow, change, and survive.
When twelve-year-old Zinnia Manning’s older brother Gabriel is diagnosed with a mental illness, the family’s world is turned upside down. Mom and Dad want Zinny, her sixteen-year-old sister, Scarlett, and her eight-year-old brother, Aiden, to keep Gabriel’s condition “private”—and to Zinny that sounds the same as “secret.” Which means she can’t talk about it to her two best friends, who don’t understand why Zinny keeps pushing them away, turning everything into a joke.
It also means she can’t talk about it during Lunch Club, a group run by the school guidance counselor. How did Zinny get stuck in this weird club, anyway? She certainly doesn’t have anything in common with these kids—and even if she did, she’d never betray her family’s secret.
The only good thing about school is science class, where cool teacher Ms. Molina has them doing experiments on crayfish. And when Zinny has the chance to attend a dream marine biology camp for the summer, she doesn’t know what to do. How can Zinny move forward when Gabriel—and, really, her whole family—still needs her help?
The more I read of Barbara Dee’s Middle Grade books, the bigger fan I become of her writing. Dee’s new book My Life In The Fish Tank offers an approachable, empathetic, and realistic take on the topic of mental health. She does this with an engaging plot, relatable characters, and humor that will engage Middle Grade readers. I read this book in one sitting!
Our main character Zinny’s life is turned upside down when her older brother Gabriel is diagnosed with bi-polar disorder. How her family deals with the situation surrounding the diagnosis is a big part of the plot. And how they deal with it? Not well, unfortunately. Through this chaos Dee manages to keenly reflect the tween perspective, the complexities of family – and in particular, family loyalty.
Mom is distracted, Dad is in hiding, and they both don’t want Gabriel’s diagnosis to get out. This makes Zinny pull away from her friends who just want to help. The book captures the loneliness that can result from keeping secrets. I think it also does a great job at normalizing different situations that tweens might stigmatize, such as speaking with a counselor or attending the lunchtime counseling group. Overall, it takes a healthy approach to discussing mental health.
“Because one thing you notice, when those bad things happen, is that calendars and clocks stop making any sense. Even if they still work perfectly okay, even if the batteries are good, and the cords are still plugged in…they don’t communicate anything useful. Or even anything your brain can understand.
At least that’s how it seemed in our house.
It was like, after it happened, we were in a different time zone from everyone else.
A parallel universe.
And we needed some kind of new, not-yet-invented time measurement. Abnormal Standard Time.”
As expected, Dee captures the middle school voice perfectly. Zinny’s is funny, honest, and drew me right into the story. I thought her siblings (and her relationship with them) was well developed and relatable, too. She also has a great teacher who subtly helps her navigate the situation. (I love seeing strong teacher role models in books.) The book is age-appropriate for the subject matter and while geared for MG readers, it is wonderful for all ages.
I give a big 4.5 stars to My Life In The Fish Tank
Looking for more books like My Life In The Fish Tank?
For other books by Barbara Dee: My 14yo absolutely loved Maybe He Just Likes You, calling it “a book all middle school girls need to read.”
Rebecca Stead’s The List of Things That Will Not Change is another book that really captures the tween voice. This book addresses anger and anxiety issues really well and was simply lovely.