The fountain of youth? Impossible, right?!? Well, this novel asks you to forget about what you think is impossible and consider the possibilities around us. A goldfish living for years and years and years? Maybe. Discovering a jellyfish (Turritopsis melvinus) that produces a compound which will make someone young again? Yep, it’s possible in Jennifer Holm’s world.
And discovering Jennifer Holm’s world in The Fourteenth Goldfish is a pleasant and wondrous experience. Ellie is a likable, funny and inquisitive eleven-year-old girl. Instantly, readers are drawn to her quirky humor and somewhat eccentric household. Because that’s right, not only is Ellie’s mother a drama teacher, her 76 year old grandfather is a scientist who happened to discover just such a miraculous jellyfish……that suddenly leads to thirteen year old Melvin living with Ellie and her mother (because a thirteen-year-old can’t live on his own, as the police inform Melvin, who is understandably frustrated given his 76 year old brain and Ph.D.) So Ellie has a new “cousin” and this operation is very top secret.
The story is engaging and surprising, leading Ellie, Melvin, and a new friend Raj on interesting escapades, all in the name of science and securing the elixir that is the newly discovered fountain of youth. The escapades are humorous and a great read. But several things (not just the pizza incident!) make this novel truly memorable. First, science is celebrated! I love that Jennifer Holm created a female main character and focused on science! Bravo to Jennifer — and bravo to Ellie! Multiple scientists are mentioned and discussed: Jonas Salk, Robert Oppenheimer, Marie Curie, Isaac Newton, Louis Pasteur. The possible connections in the classroom with science curriculum are too many to count! And Holm raises interesting points about science, ethics, and the importance of understanding the world around us, which is fascinating and inspiring for readers. Second, individuals are celebrated! In the middle school years, a time that is notably challenging and difficult for kids entering the teenage years, discovering who they are and where they fit in, individuals are encouraged to do their own thing, instead of following the masses. Friendships change, relationships evolve, and the reader sees the growth of the characters. Nonconformity is a subtle thread woven throughout the novel. In multiple instances, characters follow their passions, rather than what other people want them to do or tell them to do. Third, Jennifer Holm manages to touch on some weighty topics without being heavy-handed. Life, death, immortality, friendship, family. There are so many topics to discuss. But rather than feeling the push of so many big topics, the novel retains a light touch, humorous moments, and so many quirky details. Readers will be inspired and eager to discuss the weighty ideas as well as the humor.
Moments Worth Discussing
- “But it turned out that Goldie was kind of original. Because Goldie didn’t die………We gave Goldie Thirteen a toilet-bowl funeral, and I asked my mom if we could get a dog.” (pages 2-3)
- “She has a line about whether anyone understands life when they’re living it. I get what she’s trying to say: life is precious and we don’t realize that at the time. But maybe life’s also precious because it doesn’t last forever. Like an amusement park ride. The roller coaster is exciting the first time. But would it be as fun if you did it again and again and again?” (pages 177-178)
- “‘I believe in you, Ellie. You’re my possible.’ I watch him board the bus and I know that I will never look at a bowl of fruit or cheese, or anything ever, in the same way again. It turned out that what I needed to teach me about life was my grandfather. He was the fourteenth goldfish.” (page 185)
- “‘It’s not a happy ending’…..’It’s a happy beginning.'” (page 187)
Questions Worth Asking
- What is important about Goldie the fish? Why do you think the author decided to start the novel with the chapter about Ellie’s fish Goldie?
- What kind of person is Melvin? How is he like seventy-six-year-old Grandpa Melvin? In what ways is he like a thirteen-year-old boy?
- What is Ellie’s relationship with her grandfather? How does this relationship change over the course of the novel?
- Why does Ellie and Brianna’s friendship change? What does Ellie learn through this friendship and how it evolves? How does Raj become friends with Ellie?
- Ellie, Melvin, and Ellie’s mother all face challenges in the book. How are their challenges different? Do they all succeed in overcoming their challenges? Why? What do they learn from each other while facing these challenges?
- Who is the “Fourteenth Goldfish?” Why do you think the author decided to title the book “The Fourteenth Goldfish?”
- Marie Curie (Nobel Prize website)
- Jonas Salk (history of Salk)
- Isaac Newton (Biography website)
- Louis Pasteur (Biography website)
- Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project (Biography website)
Love Jennifer Holm? Check out Turtle in Paradise, another great read!