When the kids were younger, I read them novels aimed at children. We read, among others, the Narnia books, “The Neverending Story,” “The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane,” “The Tale of Despereaux” and several of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books.
Just before bedtime, we would gather on our big bed. First me and two kids, then me and three kids and finally, me and four kids. I’d ask a few questions to see what they remembered from the last time we read and we’d tackle a chapter or two. Sometimes they’d beg for more, sometimes they’d beg me to stop. These nightly sessions had the potential to devolve into bickering (“He’s hogging the blanket!”) or giggles (“Who farted?”) or anger (“Who KEEPS farting?) but I kept at them because I felt I was doing something they would remember, or would get them interested in reading.
It seems I spent years ending our days with a few chapters from a novel, but I don’t think I can remember more than 10 or 12 I read to them. They can’t do much better, either. I recently read a few to Eleanor who, being the youngest, didn’t get much of this before homework and friends and texting and a hundred other things displaced our reading time. Plus, five of us don’t fit on a bed anymore. When I read her the Pippi Longstocking books, she laughed so hard the boys came in to find out what was so funny. They stayed for subsequent chapters. And shortly afterward, we revived the tradition with “Wonder,” a novel I had just heard such a glowing review of that I purchased the book almost immediately.
“Wonder,” by R.J. Palacio, about a severely deformed young boy who teaches all around him that life is not about what you look like, it’s about what you are, is, perhaps the most overrated book I’ve read in a long time. The NPR reviewer talked about how often it made her cry. I’m here to tell you my eyes were too busy rolling in disgust to fill with tears. Even my kids seemed unmoved. They understood what the boy, Augie, went through was awful, but they could guess the plot easily and, when their predictions turned out true, they seemed a little embarrassed for the easy route Palacio staked out. “I’ll bet the last word in the book is ‘wonder,’ one of my younger kids guessed about two-thirds of the way through. He was right, too. “Augie,” his mom tells him, “you’re a wonder.”
All that brings me to the Global Read Aloud, a project in its fifth year with the aim of connecting the world through books. Teachers who choose to participate read a chosen book aloud in October. Then, through the magic of technology, groups of students from around the world discuss the book. A little like a worldwide book club. (One group of middle schoolers I know of, independently and not part of any global program, read George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” and discussed it with students from Kenya, who had their own take on it, informed by their own experience with government and politics. The discussion, over Skype, was interesting, when it wasn’t frozen due to technological difficulties.)
This year, one of the books teachers can read aloud is “The Fourteenth Goldfish” by Jennifer L. Holm, who has been a Newbery Honor winner several times. (That means her books have been shortlisted for the children’s literature award, but didn’t win, so Holm must be no slouch.) So, because I miss reading to the kids and because my daughter just read it and had to do a project on it, I read “The Fourteenth Goldfish.” I think I can say, with great conviction, “meh.”
It’s easy to see why the book was chosen: It expounds the very au courant message that kids — and especially girls — should be interested in science. It discusses very big issues of whether scientific advances are always good, or whether there should be some limitations to what scientists should do. But these issues are discussed in the most superficial way, even for a children’s novel, that students may not even recognize the problem.
And there are other issues: When 11-year-old Ellie’s mom comes home with a young teen boy who is actually her father (Ellie’s grandfather) made young by one of his experiments, no one bats an eye. The relationship between Ellie’s mom and grandfather is exactly the same as it was before he became a pre-teen again. They bicker, he tells her she’s running her life wrong and she snipes back. I was waiting for her to put the little turd over her knee but, sadly, that never happened. I want to be surprised, yes, even by a book for kids, and I start thinking how much better it would have been had the author explored different themes. If I’m rewriting a book as I’m reading it, it means there’s trouble.
And then there’s the narrator’s voice. She is 11, so how can she turn phrases like this: “I’m wearing my warmest sweater, but it does nothing to warm the chill between me and my grandfather.” Then there’s this bit of precociousness: When her mother — who’s focused on the high school production of “Our Town” she is directing — tells Ellie science is boring because there’s no romance in it, Ellie writes: “There’s lots of romance,” I insist. (Mom) looks confused. “Really? Who are they in love with?” “Possibility.” Pardon me while I roll my eyes. And truly, other than grandpa’s regression to a teenager, which happens offstage as it were, nothing else happens.
I read “The Fourteenth Goldfish” in about 90 minutes thinking, “I bet she knocked this out in an afternoon.” I wouldn’t be so hard on this book if I didn’t have so much to compare it to. Even the worst books I read to my kids (and I’m talking to you, “Hans Brinker or The Silver Skates“) at least felt authentic. And that’s what kids respond to: Honesty. My own Ellie, who’s 10, was pretty lukewarm on the whole book, too.
And if a 10-year-old girl named Ellie who loves science can’t like a book about an 11-year-old girl named Ellie who loves science, there’s not much there.