Reviews: The Fourteenth Goldfish

The Fourteenth Goldfish by Jennifer L. Holm (Random House, August 2014)

Back a while  ago I mentioned that the kind of science fiction we don’t see much of is the scientist/inventor-style science fiction.  We see plenty of goofy aliens and some wild space adventure, but very little that explores stories of actual scientists making discoveries. Very little that gives kids stories about scientists and inventors that might make them want to take up the profession themselves one day. Well, maybe times–and topics–are a-changing.  Because here is just the kind of book I’ve been hoping I’d get to see.

Jenny Holm has created a funny and thoughtful story that also happens to engage in some solid discussions of science, discovery and how such discoveries have consequences.  A new year and a new school means Ellie Cruz has a lot of changes to navigate in her year ahead.  But none of them prepare her for the day her mom brings home a cranky thirteen-year-old boy. A boy who is strangely familiar.  A boy who is actually her grandfather, Melvin.  It seems her scientist grandfather Melvin has been experimenting with a method of age reversal and decided to use himself has a human test subject.  The results have left him kicked out of his own lab (for trespassing), unable to drive, and stuck going back to middle school. Ellie’s life has just gotten a whole lot more complicated . . . but also incredibly interesting. Ellie’s thespian mom and boyfriend don’t have much use for science and research.  Melvin’s passion for science and research intrigue Ellie and prompt her into reading more about scientists and their discoveries.    And when her grandfather recruits her to help him break into his lab and retrieve his research, she’s ready to go along with it.

The premise of this story immediately invites some hilarity of course.  A cranky curmudgeon of a grandfather suddenly stuck attending middle school with his granddaughter and treated like the teenage boy he appears to be?  Funny stuff.  But while there are plenty of amusing and exasperating moments that will entertain readers, there are also heart-warming and poignant moments to balance them.  Ellie is struggling with the very real personal tragedy of losing one of her good friends at school who suddenly has other interests and groups to belong to, and that loss is a painful for her.  And it’s a understandable pain and loss for the audience this book is directed at.  Likewise,  when Ellie visits her grandfather’s apartment, she is given a window into the man who is neither a sullen teen or cranky grandfather, but a lonely widower.  The slippers under the bed were the thing that really hit me and stuck with me long after the book.   And later, Melvin’s decision to cook dinner for the family becomes a touchstone that reminds us the power that food and memory can have and what kinds of things bind families together.   All these little moments help Ellie along her own path of learning and discovery.  And leads her to some interesting conclusions.

As an adult reader, I was really drawn to Ellie’s grandfather,  Melvin.  This character who appears so cranky and so curmudgeonly is lovingly revealed to be so much more.  He’s a passionate scientist who loves his work and despairs of his daughter and her thespian interests.  He’s a lonely widower who misses the past and constantly gives away his true age by grumbling in true old man “get off my lawn!” fashion about modern day trends and rules.  He’s also suddenly a teenage boy again . . . and in some ways it gives him a chance to learn some new tricks.  Melvin’s shifting attitudes over having to read Catcher in the Rye help to mark his shift to a more open and receptive mind and world view.

And here’s where I do my bit of science fiction “squee”.  I’ve been discussing how we need books that showcase science and scientists in a positive light.  How we need more than mad scientists and alien gizmos–we need kids to see that the dream of being a scientist can be an exciting and worthwhile dream to have.  And here’s a book that does just that.  The Fourteenth Goldfish manages to discuss science and put it in a positive light and  at the same time bring up the darker consequences and dangers of science without ethics and awareness of possible consequences.  The book does an impressive job of promoting responsible science without taking away all the excitement and wonder bound up in it.

This is the kind of science fiction you can hand to those not familiar with the genre.  It’s realistic fiction in a contemporary setting with real-world problems and solutions.  Into that setting the author has skillfully woven in one startling bit of science fiction: a strange jellyfish and a formula that has reversed the aging process in Ellie’s grandfather.  A scientific fountain of youth.  But the author takes the time to make this only one of the threads in her ongoing narrative.  It’s an inspiring story that’s a quick read and should interest reluctant readers as well as those simply hungry for more books with science fiction.

Jennifer L. Holm is no stranger to children’s fiction, but this is–I believe–a bit of a departure from her usual work.  As such, I think she’s done an amazing job and I’m hoping many of my young patrons at the library will agree!

Publisher: Random House Books

Publication Date:  August 2014

ISBN13:    9780804193818

Recommended for grades 4 and up.



About Stephanie Whelan

I'm a children's librarian with a life-long love of all things science fiction and fantasy.

Posted on September 20, 2014, in General Posts, Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Love her. Can’t wait for this one.

  2. I really enjoyed this one, too!

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