Follow This Blog: RSS feed
Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Stranger than Fiction?

I like quirky.   Yet Jenni Holm’s THE FOURTEENTH GOLDFISH and Jack Gantos’ THE KEY THAT SWALLOWED JOEY PIGZA both put me pretty off-kilter, in that stomach-dropping “Whoa!” way of a roller-coaster.  I enjoyed both thoroughly, but am still trying to clear my head.  I do think that the oddball humor in both speak directly to their audience, in a way that can leave some adults scratching their heads, and sometimes defies our well-worn criteria for fiction. I’ll be lightly spoiling these plots below, so be forewarned….

I love the science-fan-girl tone that THE FOURTEENTH GOLDFISH inserts deftly into a handy middle school family/friendship story.  She goes all out with her concept by introducing a reverse-aging  grandfather, and we just trail along, jaws dropped, at the heels of her effortless prose.  Does she hit the schmaltz factor a little much for some tastes? Yeah, but at least she doesn’t try to hide it, or overburden it, and she certainly doesn’t go on too long, clocking in just under that magical 200 page mark. This story is not pretending to be anything, it’s true in tone, straight through the absurdist ending.

Just when you thought even Gantos couldn’t bear it any longer, Joey is back, full steam ahead.  What I find most amazing about THE KEY THAT SWALLOWED JOEY PIGZA is how Gantos just dismisses most of the polite conventions of the novel.  We start at a high pace, keep at it, and end there, all clocked in at–stand back Jenni Holm!–154 pages.  There is barely an arc, it is just Joey full steam ahead trying to get control of his own reins.   And yet, within a quick madcap we get an amazing character shift for Joey, as *gulp* he grows up a notch.   Blind girlfriend Olivia gets a reappearance here, and Gantos cranks up the schmaltz miles above where Holm left it.  I’m often not sure if Gantos is brilliant or crazy; he seems just to go as far afield as he can in the hopes that something makes sense.  Reading this, I relished the horrible fear in my gut: that fear that all would end badly, therefore mimicking for me exactly how Joey is feeling.  How does Gantos make this feeling enjoyable?  Why, when Joey blasts roaches in the microwave on the “popcorn” setting did it make me want to go make popcorn? (I did, just enough to finish the book.)  I still don’t know what to make of this book except that it works, and it is like nothing else.

It is often hard to make books like these stand against “weightier” novels…  but these both have plenty of heft.  It’s just the tone that can be deceptive to adults. Of the two, I think that JOEY PIGZA is likely a stronger contender for Newbery, but it’s a strong field this year.  Any defenses for either of these staying in your top 5?

Nina Lindsay About Nina Lindsay

Nina Lindsay is the Children's Services Coordinator at the Oakland Public Library, CA. She chaired the 2008 Newbery Committee, and served on the 2004 and 1998 committees. You can reach her at


  1. Julie Corsaro says:

    I think THE FOURTEENTH GOLDFISH is almost secretly “hefty.” Holmes has such a nuanced touch that she sneaks in thought provoking questions about death and mortality with humor and poignancy. I also think she does an amusingly convincing job of showing that there can be very little difference between a snarky teenaged boy and a curmudgeon of an old man. I agree that you have to go with the absurd premise, but since all the characters do, it’s easy. I also appreciate the matter-of-fact inclusion of diverse characters, which seemed very different to me in Holly Goldberg Sloan’s similarly fishy-covered, COUNTING BY 7s. Realizing that his may sound schmaltzy, there aren’t many middle-grade books that leave me with a smile on my face. This one did.

  2. Leonard Kim says:

    I found THE FOURTEENTH GOLDFISH fun, but it did have for me a “fatal flaw” that dampens my Newbery enthusiasm. It is a book that superficially promotes science but in the end essentially falls back on what Stephen Jay Gould called, “the most hackneyed and predictable staple of every Hollywood monster film since Frankenstein: man . . . must not disturb the proper and given course of nature; man must not tinker in God’s realm.”

    Part of this is because the grandfather’s character lacks depth — he is after all portrayed (to good comic effect) as a rather shallow fame-seeker for whom it does not even occur to think about these things. It is left to Ellie to think about these things, but she doesn’t get very far and comes too neatly to a resolution. I do think this book could have handled its themes in a way that promotes thoughtful discussion about science and consequences and responsibility. But to me it felt more like a discussion ender.

    Again, I enjoyed this book quite a lot, but I don’t think it’s a particularly profound or subtly great book.

  3. I (reluctantly) agree with Leonard – not a profound or great book, but one I think would be wonderful to discuss with a middle school book group. I, too, finished it with a smile on my face but further reflection/comparison to others we’ve read leads me to not place it on my top 5 list. I loved Ellie and all the diverse characters, but I think Holm took too easy a path with her conclusion
    and that causes the book to miss greatness.

  4. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    Three cheers for books under 200 pages!

    I haven’t read the Gantos yet, and have only browsed the Holm. Her previous three Newbery Honors were all historical fiction–the Newbery’s favorite genre–but this one is contemporary, right? On the other hand, I’m really drawn to the cover, and I love how Holm writes with short chapters, short paragraphs, and lots of dialogue–just perfect for younger readers, say fourth graders.

    Looking forward to both . . .

  5. Julie Corsaro says:

    There were two things that humanized the grandfather for me. One was his grief over the loss of his wife. The second was his increased dependency on his daughter and granddaughter. It’s another switcharoo, and a situation I think many seniors and their families experience. The latter also got me thinking about the plot. Despite the fantastic premise, I couldn’t help wondering why no one seemed to notice that the old man was missing, especially since he worked.

  6. Sheila Welch says:

    I have mixed feelings about THE FOURTEENTH GOLDFISH although I think it’s a fine book for kids to read, enjoy, discuss, and think about.

    As an adult reader, I wanted to know more about the process of aging backwards, and I think young readers might wonder about that too. Did the grandfather decide to be that age? How did he determine how young he’d be? Why did he think growing older would be any better this time around? Did he plan to turn back the clock over and over? (Maybe some of these questions are answered and I just missed them.) Some of the issues that Babbitt handled beautifully in TUCK EVERLASTING come up in this book, but they aren’t addressed as well. Still this book is interesting and exciting, and a slightly different treatment with a scientific approach could be fun. However, the book hinted at the dangers of scientific experimentation without going into much depth. This ties in with another problem (for me): the mention of the grandfather’s physical condition as possibly deteriorating. Maybe that was just brought in as a possible problem that hadn’t quite become critical by the time the story ends. I didn’t like the very end although maybe it was a joke. There were moments when I really liked this book, but by the time I finished it, I felt as though it couldn’t quite decide what sort of a book it was.intending to be.

    Still a story with some charm, and it’s certainly a worthwhile read but not my Newbery pick.

  7. Hey all! Been a long time! I’ve been away earning my Masters and had no time for “fun” reading. I snooped in on the site the last few years but sadly, had no time to involve myself. But I’m done and ready to read as much as I can and be as active as possible!

    Jenni Holm is one of my favorites. Major kidlit crush. I argued hard for TURTLE IN PARADISE on here a few years ago and love the voice in the MAY AMELIA books. The idea of THE FOURTEENTH GOLDFISH excited me but made me anxious as well, because it didn’t seem like typical Jenni Holm materal (whatever that may be).

    Now, I’m not finished with it, but wanted to jump in here anyway… There’s typical Jenni Holm stuff I love, and there’s some stuff that’s not sitting well with me, despite my acceptance of the absurd premise.

    The good:
    1) Ellie’s voice. This has always been Holm’s strength and it is here so far too. Ellie’s voice is naive, ignorant, snarky all at the same time. I’ve always been a fan of Holm’s use of figurative language and there’s some great examples in the early stages of this book:

    “Nicole had long buttery hair and looks like she should be in a shampoo commercial.”

    “Middle school is like one of those highway restrooms in the middle of nowhere. It’s dirty and smelly, and it’s crowded with strange people.”

    Her figurative language always fits the character voice too. It’s awesome.

    2) Narrative tricks. There’s a few clever little tricks employed here that in my opinion, are distinguished. I liked the following line:

    “”I even named it: Turritopsis melvinus.” “Shouldn’t it have been named after the guy who found it?” I ask.”

    Up to this point, we had not been told Grandpa’s name. I thought this was a clever way to introduce it.

    There’s been a few more times I’ve smiled at a little trick she’s used, but I can’t put my finger on any more specific examples.

    The bad.
    1) Grandpa. I’m not buyin’ Grandpa. I’ve suspended my disbelief. I’m ok with the plot, but Grandpa’s relationship with Ellie seems very forced. More of a plot device than actual character development. It cheapens the story to me. There’s a scene early on when he’s going on and on in the kitchen about the reverse aging process and Ellie seems so enamored by what he’s saying. She instantly realizes that her Grandpa is suddenly interesting. I was confused. It was such a fast realization and it seemed so beneath Holm to do such a thing, it made me wonder if I missed something. Did she have a crush on her own Grandpa? Was this supposed to be a joke?

    There’s much more book to read for me, but so far, something is off with the character development to me there.

    2) Middle school audience. Jonathan is right, this definitely reads like a 4th grade readability level. And the short chapters and page count support that. However, Julie is also right in that Holm is sneakily “hefty” here. I haven’t gotten far enough to get into the mortality themes, but Ellie’s friendship issues scream middle school to me. The themes Holm is sneaking in here don’t seem to fit the readability level of the actual text. Does that make sense? I don’t know, I hate being picky like this with a Jenni Holm book!!!

    There’s my two cents. It feels good to be back on this site!

    • I finished reading the book aloud to my 4th graders today. For us, the grandfather is wonderfully realized. No problem with that whatsoever. One does have to do a lot of suspending disbelief in terms of not going to far to figure things out. As an adult I keep wondering why he has no problem getting all the money he needs yet can’t get into his own lab. But I let that go because the overall conceit works so well for me. I think 4th graders are the perfect audience for this book.

      Not sure about the ending. I do think it could have ended it with the chapter where she identifies her 14th goldfish. The final one had this year’s class and last year’s thinking there would be a sequel and I don’t feel that is what was intended.

      But count me in as a fan for all the positives already mentioned.

      • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

        Monica, Sondy, you’re zeroing in on the nut of this one. I think the intended audience is fully willing to suspend disbelief and go with this (I wondered the same things Monica did but was willing to let them go)…but while the book *works* for the audience, I’m not sure that the plotting, as Sondy suggests, stands up as *distinguished* because of these leaps.

    • Welcome back, Mr. H! And congrats on the Master’s!

    • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

      Mr. H, welcome back, and thanks for some concrete examples of what makes Holm’s prose so fine.

  8. For me, the ending was too pat and not really believable. I didn’t believe that character would make that decision. (To be vague and not too spoiler-y.) Mind you, I don’t really think kids will have a problem with the ending. So does that even fit into the Newbery criteria? Maybe that I don’t think the plotting is outstanding.

  9. Interestingly, I thought the varied relationships the grandfather had with the other characters were the novel’s biggest strength. That his relationship with Ellie seemed “forced” at first read perfectly to me–they didn’t know each other very well, and I know that feeling with older relatives very well–and then suddenly there’s an epiphany; that’s the way so many friendships start, but it’s also something I’ve experienced and witnessed between relatives. Ellie knew her grandfather as, basically, an annoyance–not someone she had anything in common with–but it turns out there’s a lot more to him.

    As with several of you (it sounds like), the book kind of falls apart for me at the end, when all of Ellie’s realizations and so on are summed up. I’m not sure that was necessary for the audience. On the other hand, I didn’t think the actual events were too “pat”–I was left wondering, and worrying a little, about what would be next for the grandfather. The really easy ending would have been for them to find a “cure”, whee! everything back to normal!

    I don’t think it’s quite fair to say this book doesn’t explore its themes as deeply or as well as Tuck Everlasting, because that’s an entirely different book; the two books are doing different things. And there will be kids intimidated by Tuck Everlasting who whip through this story.

    I thought the friendship problems were fine for fourth grade, fine for sixth grade. The only thing that puzzled me a little was that she seemed too old to have a babysitter to me, except on special occasions (her mom doesn’t usually stay out THAT late), and I think that would puzzle a lot of kids, too.

  10. I want to put in a plug for The Key that Swallowed Joey Pigza. I think Gantos does a wonderful job having us readers go on that wild ride with Joey. As before we are deep, deep, deep into Joey’s head, moving along wondering if we are heading into a train wreck or what. I think there is a story arc — how is Joey going to manage with Carter Junior on his own? And to deal with his father? I think Gantos does a remarkable job ending the book —somehow it feels that whatever happens Joey is going to get through it and see to it that Carter Junior does too. The incredibly craziness of what happens and the way Joey manages to get them through it makes me confident. And I think that is absolutely a remarkable thing for an author to do. It has been a while since I read the previous book, but I do remember it quite well (having looked at it very closely as it was out my Newbery year) and I do think we see some serious growth here with Joey, something that adds to the readers’ confidence that this boy will make it through. This book is breathtaking in spots, hilarious in others, and tender in still others. And, as Nina, notes, under 200 pages!

  11. I’m going to read THE KEY THAT SWALLOWED JOEY PIGZA next, but I have a question and a confession. First, the confession. I’ve never read the other Joey Pigza books, cover to cover that is. Terrible, I know. I’ve had MANY Joey Pigza’s in my classes through the years so I can only imagine, but never actually read the books.

    Which makes reading THE KEY THAT SWALLOWED JOEY PIGZA an intriguing read for me, leading to my question… How much does it depend on prior knowledge of previous books? Monica talks about Joey’s growth… Am I going to feel as if I’m missing something without having read any Joey Pigza books?

  12. I think it would be great if you just read this one and then see how you respond to it. After all, the Newbery Committee cannot consider previous books, something we’ve grappled with here over the years. Jonathan is one of the best I know for making a case for a book being great even if it needs the other books to make it so, but I think it is hard to convince others of this. I found this especially frustrating the year of The King of Attolia as it seemed impossible to convince those who hadn’t read the previous books that the author’s method of withholding information was stylistic and not about anything in the previous books. So I’d be curious if you felt that way about this final Pigza book without having read the others.

    • Nina Lindsay says:

      Yes, I fear JOEY is THE KING OF ATTOLIA all over. Though the field seems divided on this, I don’t think there’s anything in the criteria that requires a book stand alone, only that it be considered on its own. If we think of Joey’s character arc over the course of the five books, then the question to committtee should be is THIS segment of the arc distinguished. Since you may not be able to evaluate this segment without knowing the others, I don’t see any reason why those who feel they can’t evaluste it shouldn’t go back and read the other books.

  13. Thanks, Monica – I was grappling with the same problem since I have skipped Joey before! Now if I can just get beyond the roaches and dogs licking plates clean….
    Also, I just finished GREENGLASS HOUSE and find it does not make my top five. I did not see what was coming and felt very manipulated. I also felt the plot was too slow in development – just not Newbery quality.

  14. PLEASE edit your blog before you post! “in a way that can leave some adults scratching there heads, ”
    I cringe when I read something like this from a professional.

    • Nina Lindsay says:

      Jo, I share your standards, so in lieu of having an editor, I welcome polite nudges to correct my own editorial blind spots. If you want to edit my posts for misplaced “it’s”, go for it, I probaby missed some.

    • I write professionally and am incredibly grateful for copyeditors as getting spelling and usage right is very, very challenging for me. I check and check and check and still miss things. Last week I handed in a New York Times review and then sent it to her three more times as I kept seeing things I’d missed. They have fantastic copy editors, but it embarrassed me that she (a new editor) would see them. So just to say some of us really just don’t see them — it is, I suppose, a sort of learning difference, one I have learned to compensate for, but sometimes still happens. On my own blog I try, but still miss things and am very grateful when they are pointed out. In fact, I will always remember Nina kindly letting me know when I once spelled a writer’s name wrong.

      • Research on writing actually shows that people often don’t catch their own mistakes, even when they otherwise know what is and isn’t correct. Because the writer knows how it should be, grammatically speaking, s/he doesn’t see the error because s/he knows what the text should be. Basically, people make mistakes and then make editing errors because they actually do know how the writing should look, even when it is correct on the page/screen. It’s a fairly interesting cognitive phenomenon.

    • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

      First of all, Jo, I think you should probably edit your own comments, too. I’m fairly certain that “in” should be capitalized since it starts a sentence, regardless of the fact that it’s not capitalized in Nina’s original quote. If you want to leave it uncapitalized, however, then you should put a colon before it–and a period after it. Under no circumstances should you ever end with a comma and then an extra space before the ending quotation mark.

      And second, when one reads a thread such as this one where the original poster and the other commenters have read the book(s), are thinking deeply and critically, and trying to articulate their thoughts, then proofreading comments stick out like a sore thumb and they carry what is probably an unintended subtext, which is this: “I’m unable or unwilling to engage in the discussion at the level that other people are, but I’m going to contribute a lower order thinking skill: I’m going to proofread!”

      I hate to be mean-spirited about the whole thing, so I will go back to simply ignoring these comments in the future as I have done in the past. Rest assured, dear readers, that we read and reread our posts before and after publication to make changes, but we cannot catch everything. If the occasional typo bothers you then you are probably better off reading another blog.

  15. I’m a big fan of both of these authors, but I’ve yet to read THE KEY THAT SWALLOWED JOEY PIGZA. What struck me about THE FOURTEENTH GOLDFISH was the inter-generational relationships. I agree with what Wendy said about Ellie’s sudden realization about the value of her Grandfather. I found the rapport between the mother and the grandfather to be very interesting and the exploration of what it’s like to parent (and be parented by) someone who is completely different in their interests, outlook etc. This was nicely turned on its head when the Grandfather is suddenly in the position of being parented by his daughter.

    I actually liked that the science wasn’t dragged out into detail; this way it could focus on the value of experimentation and not really being sure about your results. But ultimately, I think this is a book about experimenting with the relationships in your life (past and current), and finding your own path….

  16. Ok, I finished THE FOURTEENTH GOLDFISH. My initial comments were a bit premature… I will probably champion this one hard.

    Ended up loving the Grandfather. And the friendship drama doesn’t go where I thought it would go, making it an easy read for anyone in 4th grade on up to 7th.

    The hefty themes are done really really well. I found myself thinking about growing old myself throughout the entire second half of the story. It was subtly poignant.

    I think it may be a book that will need to be taken more seriously than the cover image and premise suggest it will be. Eh, it’s Jenni Holm we’re talking about! Of course it’ll be taken seriously!

    I loved it.

  17. Okay, almost finished with THE KEY THAT SWALLOWED JOEY PIGZA, and I’m not sure what it is, but I’m having a difficult time connecting with this. I feel like I’m missing out on a big inside joke or something. It’s making my head spin. I could see how some like the style in which Joey’s voice is written, but “distinguished,” I don’t know… Maybe that is the point???

    Like Monica said, there are a lot of tender moments, I LOVE the relationship between Joey and Olivia, and one has to admire the responsibility Joey has taken on as he has stepped up to “fix” his broken family. Maybe I feel like I’m missing something simply because I KNOW there’s more to his story I haven’t read (remember I haven’t read the other stories). Maybe there’s a bias there similar to someone who HAS read the others.

    The mother and father drive me crazy and I realize that is the point, but I can’t get over the frustration I feel toward their characters.

    I guess, in the end, while I don’t particularly LIKE this book, the voice is unique enough that I could see it argued as a contender.

  18. Leonard Kim says:


    Hmmm. I had read the first three Joey Pigza books but not I AM NOT JOEY PIGZA. At some gut level, it felt to me like Joey’s character arc was basically completed in the first book alone, and the other books seemed more about his having to deal with his parents. And yet the parents didn’t seem to have much of a character arc either — instead they almost seemed to be different characters in each book. That’s understandable to an extent, since the dad “goes in circles” and the mom “up and down.” But because, to me, Joey was the interesting character, not the parents so much, I didn’t really like the way this series seemed to be going. It seems to me THE KEY THAT SWALLOWED JOEY PIGZA largely follows this trend. For example, the mom shows a new (post-partum?) depressive side that I didn’t really recognize from the first three books. Yet somehow in the last 20 pages or so, I realized that Joey does seem to have developed from the earlier books. I don’t know if it was enough to win me over, but it’s there. Last year I was somewhat on the CLEMENTINE AND THE SPRING TRIP bandwagon, thinking that not only was it probably the best Clementine book, it represented a wonderful, long-arc character development. (And my interpretation is that though you can’t “consider” previous books for the award, if a book is part of a series, it doesn’t make sense to me to put blinders on and deny that a book is what it is. If a book develops a character from a previous book, that’s what it does, in the book in question.) Anyway, I don’t think this latest Pigza book has as strong a case in that respect.


Speak Your Mind