Title: The Fourteenth Goldfish
Author: Jennifer L. Holm
Publisher: Random House Children's Books
[Disclaimer: I was provided and ARC in exchange for my promotion and unbiased review of this book. I'm only required to be honest which is waht I am. I don't even get to keep the book. It's only an e-book for my Nook. And I don't even get to keep it. So there.]
If I’m going to be honest in my review of this book, then I must confess it took me about 50 pages to actually get into the book. The beginning all seemed like so many disconnected ideas that I almost quit reading. I also got frustrated very early on because I was reading yet another children’s story that consisted of, surprise, a broken, ‘dysfunctional,’ family. I am still amazed that so many children’s authors think the best vehicle for story telling or heroic children is the broken family. The early description of the Melvin’s family on page 27 was really not funny even though I suspect a certain considerable depth of sarcasm. Personally, I find nothing funny whatsoever, ever, about meth, arson, or death. It's a cheap laugh in my opinion.
I’m no prude, but I think a certain amount of discretion should rule when writing books for kids. That’s just my opinion.
I also didn’t care for the, generally speaking, poor male role models. Grandpa is cranky and overbearing. Dad is more or less absent—although he does appear every now and again to fix the plumbing which, expectedly, breaks again. Finally, the fake description of Melvin’s ‘father’ on page 28 presents us with yet another lousy male role model. I think children's books authors ought to take care to present us with a few more positive male role models.
I’m not privy to the author’s intentions, and from the bio at the end of the book it seems she had a fairly typical upbringing and family so I’m uncertain why there was a need for such negative portrayals. The only fairly positive models the reader gets are from dead scientists and some literary figures. This is too bad.
So much for my criticisms of the book. Once I managed to get through some of the early tension and scene setting, the book started to move a little better for me. I appreciated, with the above exceptions noted, the humor in the book. Grandpa was a bit cranky and critical, following a stereotypical presentation of an old person, but at times it was a funny. One part I found apropos was his ‘criticism’ of a twenty-two year teacher. His quip, “What does she know about anything?” was, in my opinion, an appropriate question and social commentary because I happen to agree. Teaching is far more than being able to dispense facts or information and grandpa rightfully asks the question.
But this is no ‘simple’ book to read. In order to understand a lot of the commentary, a lot of the plot, and a lot of the dialogue, one must be familiar with a lot of our culture and history. The reader needs to know about Shakespeare and Salinger, Newton and Galileo, Curie and Einstein, Thornton Wilder and L. Frank Baum; Jonas Salk, Louis Pasteur, and Robert Openheimer. This is no story for people unacquainted with a certain stream of literature and science. This is really thrilling to me because as an educator I sometimes wonder if our students are being made to read and understand the contributions such folks made to our history and to our culture. The book is thick with these sorts of references and bring the story to life for those who either already understand these references or make the effort to Google them and learn.
There are other references (historical, film, and literary) too that will make the book exciting for the reader, but I don’t want to spoil all the fun.
The story is fun and makes some important points as it begins to conclude. One of the most important lessons we are forced to think about is our responsibility to leave the world a better place by thinking carefully about the decisions we make. We think about this in relation to the work of Oppenheimer; we think about it in relation to Jonas Salk. At the end of the day we are confronted with a choice: just because we can do something, should we? It’s an important ethical question that we would do well to start thinking about at a younger age. I think the author has asked us an important question and asked us to think thoughtfully about how we will answer it. I’m not sure there are easy answers—even in a children’s story.
At the end of the book is a nice collection of recommended resources for continuing the conversation. I love when authors do this because, I think, it’s their way of saying: “I want you to think for yourself. I’ve started a conversation, now go do some work on your own.” It’s a simple, yet brilliant, way of continuing the dialogue. Some overachievers will certainly take her up on the challenge and these are the ones who will later write the books we read.
I mostly enjoyed the book and I don’t think my criticisms and caveats will detract from the enjoyment that readers will have with this story. Good effort.