Happy Book Birthday to My Life in the Fish Tank! Keep reading to find out why I think this is a book that everyone from middle grade to adulthood should read.
My Life in the Fish Tank by Barbara Dee is a powerful and moving story of learning how to grow, change, and survive. The book portrays mental illness and middle graders in an empathetic and accessible way.
Once again, Barbara Dee writes about important topics with intelligence, nuance, and grace.”
—Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, author of Fighting Words and Newbery Honor Book The War That Saved My Life
I received an ARC of this book free from NetGalley; however, all opinions are my own, and I was not required to give a review. This post contains affiliate links. If you make a purchase, I may receive compensation at no cost to you.
My Life in the Fish Tank
by Barbara Dee
Published by Aladdin
Publication date: 9/15/20
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?
I think most of us would agree that the middle grade years are possibly some of the hardest years. I remember the “fights” with my best friends. We’d inevitably make up and all would be well…until our next fight. Those awkward years when we transition from childhood to “almost” adulthood are hard enough without dealing with a major crisis at home. And a major crisis is exactly what seventh grader Zinny’s family faces when her family receives a phone call letting them know that her brother Gabriel has been in a car accident and seems a bit off.
My Life in the Fish Tank is simply brilliant. Mental illness is something we don’t talk about nearly enough. This is 2020, not 1920! We should know better than to treat mental illness as something that needs to be kept private. We don’t keep cancer private. Since we understand so much more about mental illness than we did in the past, we’ve got to treat it as a “real” thing because it is. Zinny goes through so much more anguish than she would have had to had her family not told her to keep Gabe’s bipolar disorder private (which means secret, right?).
My emotions took a serious beating while reading My Life in the Fish Tank because I could empathize with Zinny’s parents. There were times throughout the book where I had tears running down my face. Though I haven’t had a child spend time in a residential treatment center, I know what it’s like to have a child dealing with depression. And I know what it’s like to live with depression and anxiety myself.
Barbara Dee does an excellent job of showing us how each family member deals with Gabe’s mental illness. She doesn’t just reveal Zinny’s emotions; she shows us how Mom and Dad exist during this period, how Scarlett shuts herself away from her family, and how Aiden’s fears affect his daily life.
I feel like I could write a book about how much I love My Life in the Fish Tank because I haven’t even scratched the surface of the depth of my feelings about it. Ms. Molina, Mr. Patrick, Lunch Club, science class, old and new friends, treatment center trips…these are people and things you’ll have to discover for yourselves.
I seriously didn’t want this book to end and would have gladly read another 320 pages; however, the ending is perfect. I highly recommend it to anyone who has been touched by mental illness: teachers, counselors, middle grade kids, high school kids, parents, grandparents… Dive into My Life in the Fish Tank ASAP!
Praise for My Life in the Fish Tank
“I felt every beat of Zinny Manning’s heart in this authentic and affecting story. Barbara Dee consistently has her finger on the pulse of her middle-grade audience. Outstanding!”
—Leslie Connor, author of A Home for Goddesses and Dogs and National Book Award finalist The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle
“Author Barbara Dee deftly weaves in themes of friendship, family, and secrets, while also reminding us all to accept what we can’t control. I truly loved every moment of this emotional and gripping novel, with its notes of hope that linger long after the last page.”
—Lindsay Currie, author of The Peculiar Incident on Shady Street and Scritch Scratch
“My Life in the Fish Tank rings true for its humor, insight, and honesty.”
—Laura Shovan, author of Takedown and A Place at the Table
“This touching novel will go a long way in providing understanding and empathy for young readers. Highly recommended.”
—Donna Gephart, award-winning author of Lily and Dunkin and The Paris Project
About Barbara Dee
Barbara Dee is the author of several middle grade novels including Maybe He Just Likes You, Everything I Know About You, Halfway Normal, and Star-Crossed. Her books have received several starred reviews. Furthermore, they’ve been included on many best-of lists, including the ALA Rainbow List Top Ten, the Chicago Public Library Best of the Best, and the NCSS-CBC Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People. Star-Crossed was also a Goodreads Choice Awards finalist.
Barbara is one of the founders of the Chappaqua Children’s Book Festival. She lives with her family, including a naughty cat named Luna and a sweet rescue hound dog named Ripley, in Westchester County, New York. Visit her online: https://barbaradeebooks.com/