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?
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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