December 02, 2022

How to Be a Goldfish

Written by Jane Baird Warren
Scholastic Canada
240 pp.
Ages 9-12
October 2022
Most kids will end up doing a family tree or genealogical research sometime in school. Many will have family members they can talk to or use the internet to seek details. But, in 1981, when given a family history project called "Every Family Has a Hero," 13-year-old Lizzie Ross wonders how she's ever going to manage. Her family is basically her mother Susan and her grandmother Emma. Her grandfather had died in the war, and her mother had never married the man who'd fathered Lizzie. Thankfully Lizzie does have Harry, the elderly farmer next door, who cares for her after school. Harry, on the other hand, certainly has some stories, from being sent to Canada as a Home Child to saving a man at Juno Beach. When her mom, a lawyer, heads to nearby Toronto, to help in the defence of gay men who were being harassed by the police after the infamous bathhouse raids–it is 1981–Lizzie goes digging into old family photos and memorabilia hoping to get something to present.

Meanwhile, in Toronto, eleven-year-old David Macrath is still trying to adjust to his new life after the passing of his grandfather with whom David and his mom Carla had once lived. Now they live with Mom's latest boyfriend and her boss, Cameron Kelch, above his real estate office. At home, David is dealing with Kelch who wants David to man up and play sports and forget about his comics, movies, and favourite Star Wars. In fact, Kelch would love to send David away to boarding school, especially as he has big plans to develop the land and farm which Carla inherits from her father.

When David, his mom and Kelch head out to check out the farm and find Harry living there, the two story lines come together, with the two kids becoming allies. But will their alliance help them to save Harry's farm and protect the families they want and deserve?

Because this is historical fiction, author Jane Baird Warren embeds the reader in a time of the original Star Wars, the bathhouse raids and homophobia, no cell phones or computers–hence no easy genealogical research–and more. But this really is a story of family and family secrets and thus has no time constraints. It's about making family from bits and pieces, sometimes related and sometimes not. And that is a story for all times, regardless of the setting. By making family the focus, young readers will recognize the different configurations of family as authentic, though Lizzie and David still have to deal with small-mindedness related to those families.

As someone who lived in the 1980s, I can attest to the turbulent times. The news was rife with protests, war, strikes, riots, homophobia, and all manner of discontent. But it was also a time of learning and understanding with the opportunity to see that diversity enriched our lives and that different did not mean bad. How to Be a Goldfish reminds us that, in the right environment and with people in our corners, we can flourish and be and do better.

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