The Fourteenth Goldfish
Jennifer L. Holm
Random House Books for Young Readers
I received a copy of this book from the publisher for an honest review.
The Fourteenth Goldfish is about valuing the natural order of life. Youth, puberty, young adulthood, regular adulthood, and old age are each equally as valuable (and awkward) as the rest. But why should anyone listen to me talk about aging? What would I know about it? After all, I’m a spry thirty-something. And the minute people enter a new era of their lives, the details about the last time frame become hazy. How could I make any sort of assumption about how people younger than me experience life? The way I know that all ages have their advantages/disadvantages is through listening to other peoples’ perspectives and accepting them as valid. This is a lesson that Melvin learns in Jennifer L. Holm’s newest book.
Melvin Cruz is a gifted scientist who discovers the formula to reverse aging. He tests the experiment on himself and unfortunately reverse ages himself into the peak of puberty, zits and all. Melvin must move in with his middle-aged daughter and grand daughter in order to blend in as a run-of-the-mill, nothing-to-see-here teenager. They pretend he is a distant cousin in town for a visit and decide he should attend school, with the idea that this will make him seem normal. This lends itself to hilarious visual gags as he goes to middle school dressed in old man gear (polyester shirts, polyester pants, dress shoes, and black socks) and insists on wearing his brand new hair long and wild. Interesting power conflicts arise between Melvin and his daughter Melissa as she is now physically older than him, but he is actually older than her. Ultimately, Melvin must reflect on the chaos that would ensue if natural death and ageing no longer applied, and must decide if the world is ready for his discovery.
As interesting as that story arc is, Melvin isn’t the main character. He is a scientist, a romantic, and the grandfather of the actual main character, Ellie Cruz. Readers vicariously experience falling in love with science through Ellie’s scientific escapades with her granddad. As she helps him preserve his formula, she learns about the scientific greats (such as Galileo, Jonas Salk, Robert Oppenheimer, and Marie Curie). Melvin helps her realize that science isn’t just something that happens in a laboratory; it’s something that happens all the time, everywhere.
“I thought science was all experiments and laboratories,” I admit.
My grandfather shakes his head. “The most powerful tool of the scientist is observation. Galileo, the father of modern science, observed that Jupiter had moons orbiting it, proving that the Earth was not the center of everything. His observations forced people to think differently about their place in the universe.”
She embraces science and begins applying it to her everyday life, whether through examining samples under a microscope, studying the scientific discoveries of the past, or reflecting on the cultural significance of past discoveries. These science lessons are organically woven into the text. The narrative never change gears to go into education mode and readers are given a history lesson that fits comfortably into the plot.
Another interwoven theme is the realization that adults are people. Think back. Remember when you were a kid how old people were just Old People? Speaking from my own experience, I could not picture any adults as young people. At the most, I could picture them exactly the same but shorter. But Ellie has to meet her grandfather as a teenage boy, with all of his smells and surliness. Through watching her mother’s interactions with Melvin, she sees her mother revert to teenage behaviors:
“She answers him the first few times, but after a while she stops and just looks at her plate, the way a teenager would. I have a sudden realization: even though my mom’s a grown-up with her own life, my grandather still treats her like a kid.”
As Ellie tangles with teenaged versions of the adults in her life, the truth hits her: adults are just kids that got older. Maybe they know how to do things like banking and marketing, but dig a little deeper and their childhoods are right below surface level. This revelation allows Ellie to relate to Melissa and Melvin on a deeper level.
This is a light-hearted coming of age story about friendship, nuclear war, school dances, immortality, rebirth, burritos, death, and science. The heavy issues are offset with a hearty helping of laughs, and consequently a storyline that could easily have been a tear-jerker was instead a fun read. Recommended for all ages.
Jennifer L. Holm’s The Fourteenth Goldfish will be released on August 26th, 2014.