My Life in the Fish Tank – Barbara Dee

  My Life in the Fish Tank – Barbara Dee. Aladdin, 2020. 9781534432338

Format: Advanced Reviewer Copy

Rating:  1-5 (5 is an excellent or a Starred review) 4

 Genre: realistic fiction

 What did you like about the book? This is the story of the close-knit Manning family as they come to terms with their ‘new normal’ (or as main character and narrator Zinny calls it, ‘Abnormal Standard Time’) after learning that eldest brother Gabriel has bipolar disorder.  Gabriel has just started college when the family learns that he has been in a bad car accident, and details unfold about his erratic behavior leading up the accident.  While her parents become more and more withdrawn as they arrange treatment for Gabriel, Zinny and her other siblings adjust, at home and at school, in different ways, and the relationships change among them all as well.  For Zinny, longstanding friendships start to deteriorate because her parents have asked her to keep Gabriel’s condition private.  She begins spending more time with her science teacher, Ms. Molina, and discovering her passion for biology and the scientific process.  She also (reluctantly) takes part in a lunch club for students in other grievous situations, where she does make friends but is still hesitant to share any of her feelings or problems.  At home, Zinny finds herself assuming – and enjoying – a caretaker role for her younger brother Aidan as older sister Scarlett becomes more angry and detached.  Weekend visits to Gabriel’s treatment center do little to improve the family dynamic, but nervous readers will be reassured throughout the book by glimpses of the true bonds that exist among the siblings and parents of the Manning family.

Barbara Dee handles this very tough topic in a sensitive, realistic way without sugar-coating anything.  All of the family members’ reactions and emotions are given validation, and it is made clear both by the tone of the book and by the professionals that Zinny meets (the doctor at Gabriel’s facility, her school counselor) that there should be no stigma or shame in recognizing bipolar disorder.  It is a quick read, told in short chapters that jump around in time; many nostalgic memories are intermingled with the present day narrative.  These flashbacks serve to shed light on Zinny’s relationship with her brother prior to the car accident, and provide context for the emotional turmoil she and the others find themselves in.   Chapter titles clarify the time frame of the story – “Five Years Ago” precedes “Friday Late Afternoon” – which is a very helpful device considering the number of flashbacks that are shared.  Despite the seriousness of the subject matter, there are light moments (an ongoing struggle to come up with a topic for Aidan’s 3rd grade research project is really funny) and STEAM connections too.  

Anything you did not like about the book?  no

To whom would you recommend this book? Grade 5 and up, fans of other books by the author.  Readers of Holly Goldberg Sloan, Cammie McGovern, Kate Messner, et al will definitely want to read this book.

Who should buy this book? Public, elementary and middle school libraries

Where would you shelve it?  Fiction

 Should we (librarians) put this on the top of our “to read” piles?  no

 Reviewer’s Name, Library (or school), City:  Leigh Russell King, Lincoln Street School, Northborough, Massachusetts.

Date of review: 12/30/2020

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