Seventh grader Zoey Albro has never had it easy. On top of homework, she has to take care of her three younger siblings every day after school while her mom works at the pizza parlor. But she can’t really complain. At least right now, her mom has a steady job, and Lenny seems like one of her mom’s better boyfriends. The trailer they live in with him is clean, and even if it’s impossible to get a moment of peace from her siblings to do normal things like finishing homework or hanging out with friends, it’s a lot better than the other places Zoey has lived.
If she were an octopus, Zoey often tells herself, everything would be easier. They’re her favorite animal, and she knows all about them: how they have special muscles to change the texture of their skin, their ability to get into smaller places than other animals…they can even camouflage themselves with their environment. Sure, when they’re nervous, they turn bright red, but not even an octopus can be perfect.
But she isn’t an octopus, and she can’t camouflage herself when she doesn’t want to be seen. Her social studies teacher, Ms. Rochambeau, is always nagging at her to hand in homework, but now she has another focus. She wants Zoey to join debate team—which she knows will be full of all the kids who hand in their homework and don’t have to worry about what they’ll eat for breakfast tomorrow morning. It’s the last place Zoey, even with her octopus camouflage, could ever blend in.
Yet it’s at debate team that Zoey begins to find an unexpected place. It’s from what she’s learned at debate team that she begins to question the world around her. And it’s because of debate team that she might just find the courage to stand up and raise her voice.
Because not even an octopus should blend in forever.
The Benefits of Being an Octopus was an eye-opening, deep, and moving read. There is so much in this book I didn’t expect, beyond the themes of class and social judgement. It discusses everything from gun rights to what it means to be a kid struggling in a world where it feels like nothing is open to you. Zoey is such a strong character, full of determination and grit while still being held back by the people and the world surrounding her. She is extremely realistic, and sees the world in such a different, powerful way than most other characters in middle-grade novels, and I loved reading this story through her eyes. The supporting cast is also very realistic—particularly the first time I read this, at the same age as Zoey, this book rang true to me. Overall, I highly recommend The Benefits of Being an Octopus to readers who love thought-provoking books ages nine and up.