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October 3, 2014 / Angela Sylvia

Middle Grade Novels: The Fourteenth Goldfish, The Greenglass House

I got back into reading children’s books again! As a should, since that’s what I’m trying to write. Here is a pair I recently read, and loved.

The Fourteenth Goldfish by Jennifer L. Holm

Ellie has a hard time starting 6th grade. Her best friend, Brianna, has “found her passion” with the volleyball team and no longer seems to have time for her old buddy, and Ellie has trouble finding her own passion, something that she truly loves. Then her grandfather comes to live with her and her mother — except her grandfather is now 13 years old, having found a way to reverse age.

The science fiction element of the story is enough of a gimmick to snap up a reader’s attention, but Holm refrains from going whole-haul into the genre and allowing this to remain a story about Ellie, her maturity and growth as she understands that while there may be endings, there are also beginnings. Ellie is a fantastic heroine; her grandfather’s suddenly profound presence in her life ignites an unknown love of science (to her drama-teacher mother’s chagrin and begrudging acceptance) and she is actually the driving force behind the plot’s movement, figuring out how to retrieve her grandfather’s age-defying serum (a security guard mistook him for a trespasser) and deliberating on and bringing up the question: is this right? Should people live forever? I really appreciate the way Holm looks at science; right when I thought she was going to present a squeaky clean version of history, Ellie encounters the darker facts of science, like the effects of the atomic bomb and Marie Curie’s cancer brought on by her own research. It’s a balanced take on the pains and joys of moving on with your life, of dealing with loss, and even of science (Ellie clings to her new love of the subject even after learning of the darker side). And I have to admit, I have a tender spot for tales that involve the pain of growing apart from a very dear friend.

Greenglass HouseGreenglass House by Kate Milford

Milo’s adoptive parents own Greenglass House, an old house at the top of a hill in a smuggler’s town that they operate as an inn. Christmas break is usually a time free of guests, but then suddenly a whole handful of them show up at once. Each of these new comers seems to be seeking something within the house, which once belonged to infamous smuggler and town hero Doc Holyoak and holds more secrets and treasures than Milo or his parents imagined.

Milford’s writing is what drew me in initially, as she evokes clear, beautiful scenes of Milo relaxing in his house before all the trouble starts. Milo and the cook’s daughter (who he meets for the first time that day) Meddy decide to investigate the house and its surprise guests, in a unique way that Milford handles beautifully. Meddy convinces Milo to create an Odd Trails (think Dungeons & Dragons) character, and “play” as that character while he searches for clues. He creates the blackjack Negret, who is bolder, sneakier, and more observant than Milo, and he takes on the character fully as he plays, to the point where the third person narration refers to him as Negret, not Milo. Milo figures out some of the clues a tad too easily, with a few things left to chance (like overhearing a key conversation) but he also pieces things that he’s picked up from his increased observational skills as Negret, as well as the knowledge he holds as a lifetime resident of the house. I enjoyed the other characters as well, and would have gladly read a story about Clem and Georgie, but they never came out as clearly to me as Milo and Meddy, partly because there are so many of them, and they all have their own very involved story that doesn’t get told deeply enough. A pair of big twists at the end really did catch me by surprise; one in particular elevates the story and adds a nice bit of shock. Things get a bit too sappy at the end, and more is revealed to the wider population of the house than I feel was necessary, and there were some big things that are just left hanging, like the significance of the gate. Still despite the bumps and a bit of fizzle at the end this was a book I devoured with a few big bites.

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