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Holm, Jennifer. The Fourteenth Goldfish.
August 26th 2014
by Random House Books for Young Readers
E ARC from Netgalley.com
Ellie is having a hard time. Her divorced parents are both into acting, but she doesn't have any interest in it. Her best friend has taken up volleyball in a big way. She has found, much to her chagrin, that her goldfish did NOT outlive all the other goldfish that children in her class got in elementary school-- her mother just kept replacing them. When her mother shows up with a teenage boy in tow, and he claims to be her grandfather Melvin, Ellie is tossed into an unbelievable world where her grandfather has isolated the compound needed to reverse the human aging process... from a jellyfish. It's believable, since the young version of Melvin has many of her grandfather's quirks, and he is intent on breaking into the lab where he worked and getting the jellyfish and research back. With the help of Raj, who looks threatening but is actually quite helpful, the group set off to get the things out of the lab, and along the way, Melvin and Ellie come to terms with many facets of their lives.
Strengths: Okay, maybe I have gone over to the dark side because this was one of those books that language arts teachers love because it has Valuable Life Lessons, but this was FANTASTIC. It's short, has a lot of action, will appeal to all readers, has some cool science, throws us right into the situation with the grandfather so we don't even blink about suspending disbelief, and brings us my favorite thing to read about... a close grandparent, and one which the main character gets to hang out with when he is her own age. Awesome. I've liked Holm's other books like Boston Jane and The Creek, and this was just charming.
Weaknesses: The day is coming very quickly where we won't be able to tell grandparents from children. Melvin comes back and wears polyester pants, cardigans, and other "old man" clothes. However, my parents are even older than Melvin and regularly wear jeans. They'd probably come back hipper than my daughters!
Gephart, Donna. Death by Toilet Paper
August 5th 2014
by Delacorte Books for Young Readers
Benjamin's family is really struggling. His father died of cancer, and his mother is working as a waitress while trying to finish up her school work and tests to become an accountant. Their rent is due, and the landlord has been sympathetic, but if they don't pay soon, they will be evicted. To top it all off, Benjamin's grandfather, Zayde Jake, has moved in with the family and his senile dementia is becoming worse. His friend Toothpick, who likes to mess around with film makeup and produce his own horror movies, is supportive of Benjamin, as is Toothpick's father, and their neighbor Mrs. Schneckle helps out, too. Benjamin comes up with several plans to earn money, including selling candy bars at school, even though it against school rules to sell anything that isn't officially sanctioned. He also enters a lot of contests and manages to win a few things like a grill or a year's supply of oatmeal, but he and his mother need something a little bigger to tide them over.
Strengths: Extra points for the fun facts on toilets at the beginning of each chapter! While this was essentially a sad book, it really drew me in and kept me reading, in the same way that A Tree Grows in Brooklyn did. How bad will it get? What will Zayde Jake do next? Will the family really be evicted? There are lots of funny moments, too. In general, a great middle grade book, and the bits of Jewish culture are something that is a bit rare these days. (Although that's one subgroup I really see very little of in my library.) I especially liked that Benjamin and his mother were still struggling with the death of the father but were continuing on with their lives in a productive fashion. Realistic, but hopeful in a way that many books are not.
Weaknesses: I would have given this five stars if it weren't for a stereotypical bullying scene. Yes, it was pivotal to the plot, but we've all been there and gotten the swirly. The ending is a bit deus ex machina as well, but the target demographic won't necessarily see these weaknesses.
Marvelous Middle Grade
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day at Teach Mentor Texts and Unleashing Readers. It's also Nonfiction Monday at Anastasia Suen's blog.