When I saw Newbery honor-winning Jennifer L. Holm‘s new middle grade novel, The Fourteenth Goldfish, on NetGalley, I requested it right away. I enjoyed her historical fiction novels Our May Amelia, The Trouble with May Amelia, and Turtle in Paradise and expected a well written story with a strong sense of place and excellent characterization. While I wasn’t exactly disappointed, I was surprised at how different this one is from Holm’s other novels I’ve read. The Fourteenth Goldfish isn’t historical fiction, but rather a realistic novel with some fantastical elements that are (maybe?) supposed to be read as reality.
The Fourteenth Goldfish is the story of eleven year old Ellie, a newly minted sixth grader for whom change is coming too quickly. She has a normal life–she goes to school and mourns the inevitable dying of her childhood friendship with her former best friend; she comes home and fixes her own supper while her drama teacher mother works late; she does her her homework and keeps her nose clean. She’s a pretty mature kid. The problem is she really isn’t sure where she fits anymore. Her mother and actor father (her parents are divorced but friendly) want her to follow in their footsteps, but she’s just not into the drama scene. When her mother brings home a cantankerous teenage boy, Ellie figures he’s one of her drama kids from school who needs a bit of help. It turns out, though, that he’s more than a little bit like her scientist grandfather whom she sees infrequently because he and her mother don’t exactly get along. In fact, the teenage boy IS her grandpa, a research scientist who has figured out how to reverse the process of aging. What follows then is Ellie’s growing relationship with her teenage grandfather, whose purpose in life now is to break back into the lab where he worked as an adult to rescue his experiment and then continue his work. Ellie, Grandpa Melvin, and Raj, a guy from school, form a very unlikely trio bent on this scheme.
This is an enjoyable story, though I still am not sure if it’s supposed to be part sci-fi or if it’s supposed to be read as realistic. I think this little bit of ambiguity weakens it–it’s mostly realistic, but the idea is there that the possibilities within the universe are endless. What’s a reader supposed to make of that? The best part of the story is the growth in Ellie’s relationship with her grandfather, of course, and her appreciation for his maturity and experience. I think one of the purposes of the book is probably to be a Rah! Rah! Girl Power book since Ellie discovers a real love for science and is encouraged by Melvin to go for it. It’s a case of Ellie making up to her grandfather what her mother didn’t do–attend an Ivy League school to study science. There are numerous references to scientists and science talk sprinkled throughout. I can’t really say that I think Jennifer L. Holm delivers in this particular title, but I suppose it depends on what you’re expecting. This one will be available for purchase on August 26, 2014. (Random House)