After reading The Terrible Two Get Worse, the second in the series by authors Jory John and Mac Barnett with their signature witty and whimsical illustrations, I offered The Fourteenth Goldfish by Jennifer L. Holm to the class. In the front row: “What, no pictures?” After reading period, the same student exclaimed, “It’s so descriptive!” True. Holm’s story captivated my class with a well-traveled tale of an elder person in a much younger body.
In this novel, 11 year-old Ellie lives with her mom, a drama teacher. Ellie’s parents are divorced, but remain friendly. The dad is an actor, traveling in the Midwest with a production of Les Miserables for much of the book. Soon, Ellie’s maternal grandfather moves in after an arrest. Melvin Sagarsky is a scientist who’s discovered a way to turn back time; he’s a grumpy and opinionated 76 year-old man residing in a 13 year-old body—HIS body. Melvin has two PhDs and is hoping for a Nobel for his discovery of the serum he’s dubbed T.melvinus.
Melvin attends middle school with Ellie. His go-to outfit consists of polyester pants, practical shoes, and button down shirt. He gets detention and naps at the Halloween dance. There’s more than a sprinkling of science throughout the book, including Melvin educating Ellie about Marie Curie, Jonas Salk, Louis Pasteur, and Robert Oppenheimer. Ellie takes it all in. She navigates middle school with nervousness and self-doubt because a longstanding friendship has morphed into something less predictable. She rides the waves of uncertainty, slowly emerging with a wider circle of friendship, self-confidence, and an aptitude for observation. Death and grief make a brief appearance, too, with beautifully written scenes about Melvin’s long and loving relationship with his wife, a grandmother Ellie never really knew. She gains a better understanding of her in these memorable moments of the book.
Passages from this book were especially helpful for showcasing one of the Notice & Note Signposts (a reading comprehension technique) called Contrasts & Contradictions, signifying how characters change throughout the story. I also pulled a wide assortment of vocab for students to draw/sketch definitions during the final wrap-up: preen, ushered, diversion, defiant, brooding, and microscopic.
Holm is super talented. I shared the graphic novels she wrote with her brother, Matthew Holm, once we were done with The Fourteenth Goldfish: Sunny Side Up, Swing It, Sunny; and Sunny Rolls the Dice. They are compact, yet expressive and moving reads.