The Newbery Medal is the top prize in American literature for children. Having read a great number of Newbery Medal and Newbery Honor books, I can tell you that there’s a common ingredient among them all. That ingredient is ‘education.’ Every book I’ve read finds a way to teach the reader a little something in the course of the story. Jennifer L. Holm, a three-time Newbery Honor winner, keeps that tradition alive in her latest book, The Fourteenth Goldfish.
The story, briefly: Eleven year old Ellie is entering middle school. That alone can be a frightening change for a young girl. But Ellie gets even more change in her life when her grandfather comes to stay and has to go to school with her because he is now a teenaged boy. You read that correctly! Her grandfather, a scientist, has discovered the means to reverse the aging process and he is living proof. He’s confident it will win him the Nobel Prize. But first he has to get his project and notes from his lab, which is difficult to do since he is no longer the aged scientist with the proper credentials.
Ellie takes after her grandfather, showing an interest in science and scientific discovery. With help from her grandfather, Ellie (and the reader) learns a little about Robert Oppenheimer, Jonas Salk, Isaac Newton, and Marie Curie. Ellie’s mother is a theatre teacher/director and so we get the beautiful balance between the creative world and the world of facts and figures, with Ellie caught in between. In addition to learn a little about science and scientists through the course of the book, we also learn just a little bit about J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, as well as Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town. Author Holm beautifully captures the essence of the this book in a poignant scene near the end using Our Town to question some the of the ethics of science. This scene is worth the price of the book.
Although basically science fiction (Ellie’s grandfather is now a teenager), Holm has based this scientific discovery on current science! Ellie’s grandfather (Melvin) makes the discovery of anti-aging through his studying of jellyfish. Coincidently, I am also reading the Best American Science and Nature Writing 2013, which features a 2012 New York Times Magazine article, “Can a Jellyfish Unlock the Secret of Immortality?” by Nathaniel Rich which details the science behind Melvin’s ‘discovery.’
The book is beautifully written, easy to read, and most certainly a contender for the Newbery Medal. Ellie’s fears of losing her best friend doesn’t play as well as Holm intends. Ellie displays concern over losing her best friend because of their lack of spending time together, but because we never see them together in the first place, this one aspect is constantly told to us, rather than shown to us. And because Ellie is busy with her own story-line, we never get the sense that she’s missing her friend … again, we have to be told that she is. I can over-look this because Ellie’s and Melvin’s story is fascinating. I do have one large problem and one small problem with the book, however.
The small problem: some simple science. How is it that Melvin is a teenager? We don’t really learn how the process of his experiment worked to set him at that age. Is he aging backward? Did he revert to an infant and age to his present persona? He has all the memories of his older self but is in the his own teenage body. How and why did he choose this age? It’s a small concern, and one easy to overlook for the sake of a (science) fiction book.
My bigger concern is also, potentially arguable … illegal entry and theft.
Because Melvin can’t get in to the building where his research was being done — he is chased off by security guards for being an intruding kid (and we later learn the real reason for his key-card not working) — he enlists Ellie’s help and then some of Ellie’s friends to find a way in to the building to take the experiment. There are multiple attempts, and with each one I felt as though we were reading about Ellie’s descent into crime. I couldn’t shake that feeling and it definitely disrupted an otherwise really beautiful tale.
Looking for a good book? The Fourteenth Goldfish is a remarkable and beautiful story that offers up some insightful questions of ethics. This will be a strong contender for the Newbery Medal.
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The Fourteenth Goldfish
author: Jennifer L. Holm
publisher: Random House Books for Young Readers
hardcover, 244 pages