That’s what a lot of books for kids boil down to: Just “Oh God; Middle school”. And for good reason. I didn’t go to middle school – in my city, elementary school was K-8 and then it was high school that hit you like a hydrogen bomb (although you may, questionably, at least have had a few more years of ‘maturity’ to help you deal with it by then) – but it’s still all the same principle. You’re going along, living your regular kid life, hanging out with all your regular friends and doing all the things you’ve always done, and then BAM things change. And change, as so often is the case, is unwelcome and confusing, and overwhelming.
Such is the case for The Fourteenth Goldfish‘s 11-year-old Ellie, whose introduction to middle school is leaving a lot to be desired. Her best friend has joined the volleyball team, and, while they’re still friendly, they’re no longer in each others pockets all the time, and that’s weird. Her long-time babysitter is leaving her for a job piercing ears at the mall – also weird. And one day, her mother brings her grandfather home to live with them, only her grandfather’s going through some pretty big life changes of his own, what with discovering a way to reverse the aging process and somehow winding up as a teenager himself again. Weirdest of all.
This is a book recommended for ages 8-12, so it’s a relatively simple read – there’s a lot going on, but none of it is too complicated, and author Jennifer Holm (of Babymouse fame) does a great job of explaining things just enough without hitting you over the head with them. It’s a quick read, with interesting characters – aside from Melvin (the grandfather), there’s also Ellie’s parents (who are happily divorced, a nice off-trope departure there), the ex-best friend, and some new friends they meet along the way. But the story is mostly Ellie’s.
Over the course of the story, she learns a lot about her family, about the past, about herself, and about science – How science is part measurement, and part magic; part possibilities and part paying dues; part cycles and part consequences (mostly unforeseeable, often unintended). Just like growing up.
And I love, love, love how Holm nurtured Ellie’s scientific curiosity, how she made looking at mold under the microscope an activity to be envied, how she showed (over and over again) that science is more than just a collection of boring facts and useless historical figures, that it’s in everything we do, every day. That it’s a living thing that we should be learning about and excited about, and interested in. There’s a lot of talk about encouraging girls to enter STEM fields, so it’s nice to see a book where it’s just a regular extension of the character – that Ellie likes science, is interested in it, wants to know more about it, is important and real, and valuable, I think beyond just the context of this story.
This one goes on the keeper shelf for my niece, when middle school starts creeping up on her. (Which, thankfully, is still some years away.)