Ten Minutes with Ali Benjamin
A children's book author keen on science
Photo by Peter Baiamonte
Ali Benjamin was more surprised than anyone when her debut novel for children, The Thing About Jellyfish, became a New York Times bestseller and a National Book Award finalist. The Williamstown author likes the word blundered to describe how she came to writing the book—she didn’t know it would be for younger readers until well into the writing process. Reese Witherspoon has announced that she intends to make a film of the book, and Benjamin is now working on another middle-grade novel for Little, Brown.
The Thing About Jellyfish has been lauded for linking girls with science. Was that your intention? It was always there. I, myself, when I was in school, didn’t especially care for science because for me, science felt like it was all about filling out these lab reports very precisely. It felt dry and it felt like it was about formulas. As a kid, I really loved nature and being out there and looking at things and watching things carefully and looking up at the stars and all sorts of things that would suggest that I would have liked science, but what I remember about how it was presented to me was that it was something that I didn’t care for. Whenever I read now, it’s all interesting. I just wish I knew that sooner.
Did you draw inspiration from either of your daughters? There’s a lot of my younger daughter in there. My younger daughter is fairly introverted. I don’t know if everyone would describe her that way, but I think she is. From the time she was little, she was really crazy about the natural world and the ocean and fish. We would go to the aquarium at the Berkshire Museum, and she would quiver with excitement from a young age. It connected with her. I had never thought much about the ocean, about what was underneath the water, but because she was so interested, we got books on it, and we would read them together. I started to realize how interesting it was, and that all figured in. This book wouldn’t exist if she didn’t have that interest, which is a great thing about kids. They come out with their own interests and their own way of seeing the world and asking questions about the world. You get to re-experience the world through kids.
Do you see any link between Jellyfish and your earlier food writing in The Cleaner Plate Club? In relation to science and seeing the world as an interesting place, my exploration of food and of food systems, and of how food systems impact so many things, including the oceans, because of agricultural run-offs that a chunk of soil from two different farms can be completely different and that the food that would grow in that soil could be different, and different both in experience and in nutritional value and in its impact on the world. And the idea that the world is a really interesting place, that it’s more interesting than it might look when you’re only looking at the surface of things. That idea that the world is more complex and far more interesting, and that it’s kind of a joy to go deeper into something, and the deeper you go the more interesting it is and the more the world around you becomes rich and alive and vibrant, and it’s way more fun to go down the path of learning about things than it is to just see the world as flat and see it on that superficial level. I’d say that’s an underlying theme that was definitely something I experienced when writing The Cleaner Plate Club and it’s certainly related to Jellyfish.
Is there any aspect of The Thing About Jellyfish that you think gets overlooked? Jellyfish rarely gets talked about as an environmental book, but it was always an environmental book for me. One of the things I’m really proud of is that it got a Green Earth Book Award. What jellyfish tell us about the way we are using the world is really interesting. Jellyfish tell us a lot about ourselves, about who we are, and about our place in this world and the impact we’re having on it. It’s this book about grief, and there is some of my own grief about how we’re treating this one and only, spectacularly gorgeous, complex planet that we were all gifted. My grief about that is woven into the book.
Has writing the book helped you cope with that grief? One of the really nice things about being with kids and doing something that connects me more with kids is that kids are actually pretty helpful and kids don’t feel like we’ve run out of possibilities, and that’s really nice. Are we going to do the right thing for the Earth? I don’t know, but I know it starts with believing that we can, and I think one of the hardest things is that there’s a cynicism that people often have that it seems so intractable, and some of the problems seem so big that people, on the extreme end, outright deny that it even exists because it feels so big and impossible, so denial is easier. There’s a whole spectrum between that and hope, and cynicism lies somewhere on that spectrum. Kids don’t have that, and if you spend enough time around younger people, it’s a lot easier to feel hopeful than it is when you spend a lot of time around adults.
Ali Benjamin is guest author at the next Lean In writing circle hosted by Berkshire Magazine and the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers, at Shaker Dam Coffeehouse and Stanmeyer Gallery in West Stockbridge. Sunday, October 23, 2016 3-5 p.m.