Mental illness is a theme most often seen in YA or Adult books. It’s a tough topic to convey when your audience is 9-13. No need to worry here as the characters and story will win you over.

Told from the viewpoint of twelve-year-old Zinnia Manning, there are no chapter numbers. Instead each chapter heading describes the time period conveyed in that section. Titles like February 21, Six Months Earlier, The Day After, and many more give you a flavor of what to expect. It’s a perfect way to share the difficult year Zinnia is having.

As the third child with a college age brother, a high school sister, and a younger brother in third grade, Zinnia is in the middle of it all when older bro Gabriel has a car accident leading to a bi-polar diagnosis. He’s sent to a treatment center and the parents request that their children keep this private. Hard to do when it leads to broken friendships and confused feelings.

Heartfelt and bold, you’ll be glad you spent time with Zinny and her family. It’s a hard to put down story that you just might end up reading in one sitting.


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?


  1. Relationships with family and friends frame the life of a child in middle school. Barbara Dee is an expert at revealing the conflict inherent with each person Zinny has in her life. Great character arcs abound.
  2. Hurray for the teachers who are at Zinny’s side. Her science teacher and counselor are true believers in this confused kid.
  3. The comparison of Zinnia’s troubles to that of life in a fish tank is a brilliant method to provide the connection to healing.
  4. Young readers will grow in their empathy and understanding of bi-polar disorder. Discussion possibilities are wide ranging.
  5. A realistic story you won’t soon forget.


Barbara Dee is the author of eleven middle grade novels published by Simon & Schuster, including My Life in the Fish Tank, Maybe He Just Likes You, Everything I Know About You, Halfway Normal, and Star-Crossed. Her books have earned several starred reviews and have been named to many best-of lists, including the The Washington Post’s Best Children’s Books, the ALA Notable Children’s Books, the ALA Rise: A Feminist Book Project List, the NCSS-CBC Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People, and the ALA Rainbow List Top Ten. Barbara lives with her family, including a naughty cat named Luna and a sweet rescue hound named Ripley, in Westchester County, New York.

(For more about Barbara and her books visit her website)


I received a copy of the book in exchange for my honest review. Be sure to leave a comment below if time allows.

About Greg Pattridge

Climbing another mountain...always striving to reach the next peak in my life and career.
This entry was posted in Middle Grade Book Reviews and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Natalie Aguirre says:

    This sounds like a great story. And I love the title and how it fits into the theme of the story and the science Zinny is working on.

  2. Susan Wroble says:

    I love books that discuss and therefore work to destigmatize mental illness—this one sounds great! I am looking forward to reading it.

  3. I am glad to see more MG books that include mental illness. It is so important to include this theme in MG books so kids who are dealing with family members won’t feel so alone. Great title — adds a little humor to Zinny’s life. Thanks for sharing today!

  4. Completely Full Bookshelf says:

    It’s great to see more books tackling mental illness—especially bipolar disorder, which is one I don’t often see in MG or YA books. I can imagine Zinny would feel sort of overshadowed with a brother with bipolar disorder and two other siblings. I’m very curious about the metaphor of a fish tank for healing! Thanks for the excellent review!

  5. There are a few good books for middle-graders that look at mental illness, but it is usually a parent suffering. Having it be a sibling is a good idea. It brings it closer to the MC. Thanks for telling me about this book. I will be looking for it.

  6. This book sounds interesting. I’ve seen it a few places. Will have to check it out!

  7. Jenni says:

    This book sounds interesting. The cover is so bright and cheery, it’s hard to believe it’s a book about mental illness. It sounds like it’s handled in a realistic and heartfelt way. I think the tension with the friends and the “lunch bunch” will be relatable to kids.

Place your thoughts here with a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.