My Life in the Fish Tank

When twelve-year-old Zinnia Manning’s older brother, Gabriel, is diagnosed with a mental illness, their 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, and 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.— 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. But when Zinny has the chance to attend a dream marine biology program 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?

From the acclaimed author of Maybe He Just Likes You and Halfway Normal comes a powerful and moving story of learning how to grow, change, and survive.

A Junior Library Guild selection

A 2021 Bank Street Best Children’s Book of the Year (ages 9-12)

2024 Rebecca Caudill Young Readers Book Award/Illinois Children’s Choice Award nominee

2023-2024 Pennsylvania Young Readers Choice Award (Grades 6-8) nominee

2022 Texas Lone Star Annotated List

Nominated for Vermont’s 2021-2022 Golden Dome Book Award (formerly Dorothy Canfield Fisher Book Award)

Kansas NEA Reading Circle List Starred Junior Title

One of A Mighty Girl’s 2020 Books of the Year

One of Pernille Ripp’s Favorite Reads of 2020

A 2020 Cybils nominee (Middle Grade Fiction)

Anderson’s Book Shop Mock Newbery 2021

Check out the Reading Group Guide  for MY LIFE IN THE FISH TANK

My op-ed for School Library Journal: Abnormal Standard Time: Barbara Dee’s Message to Kids Living Through a Pandemic

Aladdin/Simon & Schuster, Hardcover
ISBN 978-1-5344-3233-8
Ages 9-13

“Though Dee’s message—that mental illness need not be stigmatized—comes through clearly, the story manages to avoid feeling didactic through lunchtime conversations that are particularly relatable. With sensitivity and skillful storytelling, Dee portrays a difficult subject in an engrossing, accessible way.

“Dee writes endearing characters that are varied and flawed, allowing readers to easily identify with one or multiple characters. Instilled with humor, the plot offers a layered narrative with occasional verse, perfect for readers looking for something a little extra special. Realistic and sympathetic, this demonstrates a successful, meaningful, and responsible discussion around mental health for all ages. Meanwhile, readers will delight in Zinny’s interest in science and in the secondary plotline involving a crayfish named Clawed. Fans of A Mango-Shaped Space (2003) will devour and adore this novel.”

“What you need to know … is how nuanced and emotional this story is. This is a much-needed book that can show how hard and scary [mental illness] can be, but also how much help there is, and how much hope there is. An important read and highly recommended.”

“I loved MY LIFE IN THE FISH TANK.  Once again, Barbara Dee writes about important topics with intelligence, nuance and grace.  She earned all the accolades for MAYBE HE JUST LIKES YOU, and will earn them for MY LIFE IN THE FISH TANK too.”

Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, author of FIGHTING WORDS and Newbery Honor Book THE WAR THAT SAVED MY LIFE

“MY LIFE IN THE FISH TANK is a powerful portrayal of a twelve-year-old dealing with her sibling’s newly discovered mental illness. Author Barbara Dee deftly weaves in themes of friendship, family, and secrets, while also reminding us all to accept what we can’t control. I truly loved every moment of this emotional and gripping novel, with its notes of hope that linger long after the last page.”


“I felt every beat of Zinny Manning’s heart in this authentic and affecting story. Barbara Dee consistently has her finger on the pulse of her middle-grade audience. Outstanding!

Leslie Connor, author of A HOME FOR GODDESSES AND DOGS and National Book Award finalist THE TRUTH AS TOLD BY MASON BUTTLE

I really treasure the writing of Barbara Dee, she consistently writes incredible middle grade books that don’t shy away from tough topics while giving us a glimpse of full families and universes where all sorts of people are represented. She doesn’t disappoint in [MY LIFE IN THE FISH TANK], a powerful story of what happens when someone you love is diagnosed as bipolar. Definitely recommending this one to be added to your collection.”

Pernille Ripp, teacher and founder of Global Read Aloud

“MY LIFE IN THE FISH TANK rings true for its humor, insight, and honesty. Zinny is an appealing narrator, and her friendships with supporting characters are beautifully drawn.”

Laura Shovan, author of TAKEDOWN and A PLACE AT THE TABLE

Barbara Dee, the acclaimed author Maybe He Just Likes You, skillfully crafts a story of a family in crisis, including Zinny’s growing realization that her brother’s condition wasn’t as sudden onset as it seemed, while also capturing the power of destigmatizing mental illness and of forming friendships that can sustain you. (2020 Books of the Year)

“Barbara Dee offers a deeply compassionate look at life for twelve-year-old Zinny, whose older brother faces mental health challenges. This touching novel will go a long way in providing understanding and empathy for young readers. Highly recommended.”

Donna Gephart, award-winning author of LILY AND DUNKIN and THE PARIS PROJECT

“A good read for middle school aged kids but … also a great family discussion book as it addresses mental illness in a way that a child can process and relate to.”

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“A carefully crafted blend of realism, age-appropriate sensibilities, and children’s interests.”