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My Life in the Fish Tank


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About The Book

From the acclaimed author of Maybe He Just Likes You and Halfway Normal comes a “compassionate…touching” (Donna Gephart, award-winning author of The Paris Project) and powerful story of learning how to grow, change, and survive.

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 with 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. February 21

February 21
James Ramos got a haircut yesterday, but so what.

I mean, nothing against his hair: he had a perfectly regular-shaped head and un-clownish ears. And now you could see his eyes (brown), if that was super important to you.

But not to me. Unlike my two best friends, Kailani and Maisie, and probably a whole bunch of other girls in the seventh grade, I wasn’t obsessed with James Ramos, or with his hair. So while we walked to school that morning, and Kailani went on and on about James Ramos And His Haircut, I tried to click on a different mental link.

Think about other stuff, I told myself.

The crayfish we’re getting in science lab.

The fish tanks we’re designing.

All the cool experiments we’ll be doing—

Now Maisie tugged my jacket sleeve. “Don’t you think, Zinny?” she was asking.

“About what, specifically?” I glanced at Kailani, hoping for a clue.

“That James likes Kailani! That he has a crush!”

“Oh, definitely,” I said.

“Zinny.” In the chilly air, Maisie’s skin was pale, and her freckles stood out like punctuation marks. “No offense, but you’re doing that thing again.”

“What thing?”

“You know,” Kailani said gently. “Tuning us out. Pretending we’re not here.”

“That’s not true,” I protested. “I mean, okay, sometimes my mind wanders a little—”

Maisie snorted. “Can I ask you something, Zinny? Why are you walking with us if you don’t want to be with us?”

I couldn’t answer that question.

Even though the words were all in my head:

But I do want to be with you.

To be honest,

with all the stuff going on in my family,

if I didn’t have the two of you,

I couldn’t go to school at all.

Reading Group Guide

Reading Group Guide for

My Life in the Fish Tank

By Barbara Dee

About the Book

When twelve-year-old Zinnia Manning’s older brother, Gabriel, is diagnosed with a mental illness, her 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.” To Zinny, that sounds the same as “secret.” Which means she can’t talk about it to her two best friends or bring it up during Lunch Club, a group run by the school guidance counselor. The only good thing about school is science class, where cool teacher Ms. Molina has them doing experiments on crayfish. 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 the rest of her family still need her help?

Discussion Questions

1. Discuss how the title relates to the book’s major theme. Have you ever felt as if your life was being too closely scrutinized? Explain your answer. Did that make you feel mad, sad, worried, embarrassed, defiant? How did you handle those emotions?

2. Think about other themes in the book, such as secrecy versus privacy, sibling relationships versus friend relationships, resiliency, growth, and change. How do they intersect or run alongside the major theme?

3. What do you think Zinny means when she says that her life veers away from what she calls “Normal Standard Time”? She thinks, “Because one thing you notice, when those bad things happen, is that calendars and clocks stop making any sense.” Do you think she understands why she feels this way? Do you think she should have shared these feelings with others? Have you ever had to live within “Abnormal Standard Time”? Explain your answers.

4. The author uses flashbacks to give readers glimpses into Gabriel’s pre-crash behavior. Do you think remembering these moments helps Zinny to come to terms with her brother’s diagnosis? Did you notice any early signs of mental illness? What did these scenes help you to understand about these two characters and their relationship?

5. Another plot device the author uses is foreshadowing. In the first chapter, walking with her friends, Zinny thinks about “all the stuff going on in my family.” Later, after taking the Annual Kid Photo, she observes, “And, just a few months later, it’s like the bottom step falls out.” Did either of these incidents make you curious about what had happened to her? Did you have any guesses about what was going on?

6. For Zinny, science is a calm place in the center of her chaotic life. She likes the scientific names for things. Why do you think that is? Why are science and her science teacher so important to her? Can you suggest some reasons why science might be reassuring during this tumultuous family time?

7. Discuss Gabriel’s siblings’ reactions when they are told that he has bipolar disorder. Whose reaction did you most identify with? Could you understand the others’ reactions? Explain your answers. Discuss how each behaves in the days following this revelation. For example, Zinny looks up the definition of bipolar disorder. How would you have reacted if you were in her shoes?

8. Discuss how the book would have been different if told from Gabriel’s, Scarlett’s, or Aiden’s points of view. In the flashback scene where Gabriel takes Zinny for ice cream, she doesn’t like how he’s acting and asks to go home. What do you think Gabriel was feeling in that scene? Do you sympathize with Scarlett when she says, “‘Can Gabriel’s mental problems please not take up my entire existence’”?

9. Think about Zinny’s parents’ behavior. Do you think it’s fair that Mom “checks out” and stops taking care of things? How would you feel if a situation with one of your siblings was completely distracting your parents? Why do you think it’s so difficult to find a balance?

10. How do you feel when Zinny’s parents ask Zinny and her siblings to keep Gabriel’s diagnosis private? What do her mom and dad expect will happen if they don’t keep it private? Would you honor their wish or, like Scarlett, tell everyone what is really going on?

11. Why do you think Zinny pulls away from her friends? How does she feel when Luz asks her, “How are you going to work stuff out if you just give up on people?”

12. Do you agree or disagree with Zinny when she thinks, “But if there was a difference between those two words—‘secret’ and ‘private’I didn’t know what it was”? How do you or the people around you use those two words? What do you think they mean? Where do both words lead? Think about situations in the book, such as the scene where Zinny’s mom tells Mrs. Halloran that Gabriel is back in school. How does that make Zinny feel? How does she feel when she lies to her friends?

13. Do you think it’s easier for people to accept that Gabriel was in a car wreck rather than being diagnosed with bipolar disorder? If so, why do you think that is? Why might people hesitate to disclose that they, or someone they love, have a mental illness? Think about Mr. Patrick talking to Zinny about mental illness, saying “‘people don’t understand it.’” Think about what you see or hear about mental illness on TV or in the media. How do you or your friends view mental illness? Are you comfortable talking about it?

14. Zinny worries that if she talks about Gabriel at school, “maybe people would start to wonder about me.” When her friends say she’s acting strange, her first thought is, “Am I like Gabriel?” Why do you think this scares her? What might you say to her if you were her friend?

15. When Scarlett and Zinny have a serious talk about Gabriel, it seems like their lives have been divided into “before” and “after” Gabriel’s diagnosis. Why do you think they both feel that way? What might help them see things from a different perspective? Have you ever had a life event you felt divided your life in this way? Did you have someone whom you could talk about it with?

16. Discuss Zinny’s friends “before” and “after.” When Kailani and Maisie encourage her to talk, do you think they’re worried about her or are just being nosy? How are her new Lunch Club friends different? Do you think small groups like the Lunch Club can be helpful in sharing experiences and finding support in tough times, or would you rather not be separated from the larger group?

17. Why do you think Zinny is so upset when Clawed goes missing? What does she mean when she says, “predictable was pretty much a compliment”? In her letter to the camp, she says, “You can’t control everything, and you can’t predict everything either.” How do you think she feels now having learned this? How does it make you feel? Do you think there are advantages and disadvantages to a predictable life?

18. Before reading this book, what did you know about bipolar disorder and mental illness? Where did you learn about them? How were they portrayed? Do you have a better understanding of mental illness after reading this book? Why is it important to think and talk about it?


Creative Writing

1. When Zinny gets ready to write to the camp officials, Ms. Molina tells her, “Think of it as a chance to share something about yourself with the world. Something important.” Write your own letter like this to a camp, club, or college program that you’re interested in.

2. Journaling is often an important tool during therapy, or for sorting out thoughts during difficult times. Imagine what Zinny’s journal entry might say about the incident that put Gabriel in the hospital, or another pivotal moment during the book.

3. Zinny connects with Aiden by giving him suggestions for his “how to survive” school project. Dream up five serious “how to survive” headlines, and five humorous ones.

4. At one point, Zinny has a fantasy about retreating to her own fish tank with everything she needs to survive inside. Write an essay talking about what your protective fish tank would have in it. How would it make you feel? How long would you like to stay in there?

Research and Report

1. What is bipolar disorder? Starting with these two websites, research and write a report about bipolar disorder in teens.

Present your findings to your class.

2. Who was Nikola Tesla, and what did Gabriel find so fascinating about his mind? Research Tesla’s life and write a report about him.

3. Zinny thought Ms. Molina’s plants looked alien. Find out more about the following plants, and share your most interesting findings with your classmates: Kalanchoe tomentosa, Echeveria elegans, and Schlumbergera bridgesii. You can also investigate the herbs they planted: Laurus nobilis, Thymus vulgaris, Salvia officinalis, Salvia rosmarinus, and Lavandula. Would you plant any in your own garden?

Guide written by Bobbie Combs, a consultant at We Love Children's Books.

This guide has been provided by Simon & Schuster for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes. For more Simon & Schuster guides and classroom materials, please visit or

About The Author

Carolyn Simpson

Barbara Dee is the author of fourteen middle grade novels including Unstuck, Haven Jacobs Saves the Planet, Violets Are BlueMy Life in the Fish TankMaybe He Just Likes You, Everything I Know About YouHalfway Normal, and Star-Crossed. Her books have earned several starred reviews and have been named to many best-of lists, including 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.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Aladdin (November 2, 2021)
  • Length: 336 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781534432345
  • Ages: 9 - 13

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Awards and Honors

  • Pennsylvania Young Reader's Choice Award Master List
  • Rebecca Caudill Young Readers' Book Award Master List (IL)
  • Kansas NEA Reading Circle List Starred Junior Title
  • Bank Street Best Children's Book of the Year Selection Title
  • Golden Dome Book Award Master List (VT)

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More books from this author: Barbara Dee