The Fourteenth Goldfish

ScienceThrillers.com book review of THE FOURTEENTH GOLDFISH by Jennifer L. Holm.

BlueStar5(extraordinary; top 10-15% of SciThri)

Publication date: August 26, 2014
Category: middle grade science-themed fiction
Tech rating (out of 5; what does this mean?):

Biohazard5

Summary (from the publisher):

Galileo. Newton. Salk. Oppenheimer. Science can change the world . . . but can it go too far? Eleven-year-old Ellie has never liked change. She misses fifth grade. She misses her old best friend. She even misses her dearly departed goldfish.

Then one day a strange boy shows up. He’s bossy. He’s cranky. And weirdly enough . . . he looks a lot like Ellie’s grandfather, a scientist who’s always been slightly obsessed with immortality. Could this pimply boy really be Grandpa Melvin? Has he finally found the secret to eternal youth?

With a lighthearted touch and plenty of humor, Jennifer Holm celebrates the wonder of science and explores fascinating questions about life and death, family and friendship, immortality . . . and possibility.

ScienceThrillers review:

Who knew that a “simple” little book for 8-12 year olds could be so brilliant?

The Fourteenth Goldfish by Jennifer L. Holm (author of many things including the Babymouse series of graphic novels) is laugh-out-loud funny, poignant, inspiring, and science-y all in one. Buy this one and read it to the youngster in your life, or just enjoy it yourself and then donate it to a school library.

The setup and plot are simple enough. Ellie’s grandfather, a scientist who has a fan club in Finland, has found the key to restoring youth in a mysterious, one-of-a-kind jellyfish. (This idea is based on real research about jellyfish that never age.) Grandpa Melvin is now a teenager in body, but he’s still Grandpa in mind and spirit. This contrast makes for some fantastic conversations. “Teenage” Melvin in his old-man polyester pants says:

“You need good grades if you’re going to get into a competitive PhD program.”

“PhD program? She’s eleven years old!” my mother says.

Unfortunately, Melvin the kid has been kicked out of his research lab because nobody believes he is Melvin the doctor. He needs to get inside to snatch the jellyfish so he can publish his data. Meanwhile, he’s living with his daughter and granddaughter and going to Ellie’s school.

Around this premise, author Holm weaves a surprisingly subtle and complex tale about change vs stasis, what it means to grow up and grow old, the power of science to transform the world for good or for ill, the importance of ethics and thoughtfulness in research, parent-child relationships, and the power of possibility. Holm invokes Marie Curie, Robert Oppenheimer, Newton, and Jonas Salk.

For me as an adult reader, the best parts of The Fourteenth Goldfish were the pitch-perfect portrayals of a crotchety genius with a soft spot for his granddaughter, a man who might win a Nobel prize but can’t handle any deviation from his diet of Chinese take-out moo goo gai pan. As a science-y person, I loved the deft incorporation of science biography and history as a natural part of the story, not as something preachy or “educational” added on.

A rare gem of great storytelling and science content in a middle grade novel. Highly recommend.

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