What I’m Reading: The Third Mushroom

Posted October 18th, 2018 by Candice

I’m a huge fan of Jennifer L. Holm’s books.  I’ve taught her Newbery Honor historical middle grade, Turtle in Paradise, in my writing classes.  And The Fourteenth Goldfish will be a mentor text in my week-long middle grade writing intensive (next summer, Hollins University).  I loved the idea of a scientist grandfather who finds the secret of turning back the clock.  He lands in Ellie’s life as a nerdy teenager with a powerful discovery.  Suppose everyone could enjoy the fountain of youth?

I read the sequel, The Third Mushrom, twice: once, for enjoyment (it doesn’t disappoint as a sequel), and again to examine Holm’s amazing plot threads.  Grandpa Melvin has been gone since the end of the previous book, but lands back in Ellie’s life.  He’s a bit older now, going through “the Puberty,” to his everlasting disgust.  Imagine if we all had to go through that twice!

Ellie hasn’t been standing still during Grandpa Melvin’s.  She’s older, too, with a new stepfather, a Goth best friend, Raj, and her own interest in science.  Grandpa Melvin is now in her school (he can drive, but he’s too young to get a license or a job or an apartment—turning back the isn’t all it seems) and is mightily bored.  After all, he has two PhDs.  Middle school doesn’t cut it.  But he and Ellie team up for a science fair project involving fruit flies and something strange Melvin found while he was traveling.

Middle school life as portrayed by Ellie, who isn’t sure if she can be friends with her old best friend since kindergarten, Brianna, or if her new best friend could also be her boyfriend, has the genuine up-and-down feelings.  Grandpa Melvin has all the traits of a fourteen-year-old boy (dirty laundry, sleeping late), along with his old-man grouchiness.  Dialog is brisk and funny.

Holm’s masterfully twines several plot lines: the new best-friend-could-also-be-boyfriend Raj, former best friend Brianna, Jonas the cat’s mysterious new cat friend, the new vegetarian stepfather, Ellie’s continued interest in science, the widowed librarian her grandfather has a crush on, along with Grandpa (“I have two PhDs”) Melvin’s scientific anecdotes about penicillin, the microscope, comets, and taxonomy.

There is much to chew on in this book:  the importance of science, the relationships between Ellie and her friends, and Ellie and her family.  Underneath the humor and middle school angst is this valuable nugget, revealed when Ellie and her grandfather are talking about the death of the grandmother who died of cancer before Ellie was born:  no matter how much we know, no matter how many advances we make in science, we cannot always alter the outcome.  Grandpa’s two PhDs could not help him save his wife.

If you’ve read The Fourteenth Goldfish, you’ll love the sequel.  If you haven’t read it, read it first, then savor the sequel.

The Third Mushroom, Jennifer L. Holm (Random House, 2018)

Daniel Boone Days

Posted October 9th, 2018 by Candice

This blog has been sadly neglected.  Too much teaching, too much writing, too much—well, ignoring the blog!  In the past, my blog has been a place for me to write photo essays.  My monthly column at Bookology Magazine is home for my children’s literature essays.  And I contribute articles on the writing process to Children’s Book Insider.

So, I decided to revive my blog, make it simpler by posting on three subjects:  What I’m Writing, What I’m Reading, and Where I’ve Been.  In all the years I’ve kept a blog, I’ve never discussed what I’m working on, or books I’ve read.  Time for a change!

I’m starting off with Where I’ve Been.  Last Saturday I was part of Daniel Boone Days at Andora Farm in Culpeper, Virginia.  (My husband says I get asked to the weirdest events.)  My connection to Daniel Boone?  I wrote a children’s biography more than ten years ago.  I brought books to sell and was the featured speaker at the evening banquet (outdoors, under ancient black walnut trees, with many giant mosquitoes).

The Friday night before Saturday, I plowed through Robert Morgan’s 500-page biography, Boone.  Morgan’s excellent book is more recent than the sources I used in mine.  Saturday morning, I wrote my speech.  Morgan’s book, combined with the political events of the past weeks, gave me my theme: heroes.  Can we still look at people like Daniel Boone and George Washington and, yes, Robert E. Lee (I wrote biographies on them all) as heroes?  Morgan pointed out that people from the past often hover between biography and legend.  We can’t know everything about larger than life people and we never will.

I spent the entire day at Andora Farm, where Daniel Boone once raised children, picked tobacco, and gazed at the beckoning western mountains.  I talked to mountain men reenactors, a local historian, a quilter, and cooks who made delicious chili and griddle cakes in a Dutch oven.  But mostly I watched the kids.  They ran from the blacksmith to the candle-dipper to the mule.  I rode the hayrick with them to the encampment.  I watched them wade through a stream—shoes, socks, and all—and get wonderfully wet and dirty.

I hope they went home, too fired up about the “olden times” to fiddle with social media or computer games.  I hope they slept soundly that night after being outside all day, accompanied by the past, nature, and their imaginations.  I know I did.