Allison's Book Bag

The Language of Goldfish by Zibby O’Neal

Posted on: July 4, 2011

The 80’s seemed to usher in a slew of movies about teens who found growing up more difficult than their peers. Being one of those teens, I found solace in those movies and wished for the same storylines in books. Not too many existed. I did not know about The Language of Goldfish by Zibby O’Neal at that time. Yet it also transcends that period, in being about a universal theme: the inevitability of change. I am glad to have discovered it.

Carrie Strokes used to live in Chicago. She wishes her family had never moved. She wishes a lot of things had never changed. After her family moves, Carrie and her older sister Moira have their own rooms. Despite this, her sister and her now having separate rooms , they initially retain a common bond: being able to beckon to them the goldfish that swim in their garden pond. Then Moira starts to grow up. She becomes interested in dances, music, and boys; Carrie prefers math and art. The two begin to drift, perhaps when Carrie most needs her older sister. Before the family move, Carrie used to have a best friend. Now she does not have any close friends. Her classmates are all beautiful people, except for ones like Katherine who are ugly and mean. Carrie does have her art lessons. But when her art becomes more experimental, Carrie feels as detached from even it. Everything is changing, from her relationships to her interests and even her body.

Carrie resists these changes, wherein lies her story. When we meet Carrie, she is studying math and appreciating the neat geometric figures that lay solidly on the pages of her textbook. Carrie likes their permanence: “Forever the square of the hypotenuse of a right-angle triangle would be equal to the sum of the square of the other two sides.” To Carrie, math was firm; it didn’t shift and change as sometimes things did in her head. She begins experiencing moments where her mind is assaulted by a kaleidoscope of colors and shapes . These assaults initially make Carrie feel dizzy and eventually disorient her to the point that she ends up lost during an evening walk. I do not care for this vague depiction of mental illness. It reminds me of stories where the heroine develops mysterious aches, experience fainting spells, and suddenly becomes deathly sick for no concrete reason. Over all, though, I do applaud Zibby O’Neal for effectively portraying Carrie’s mental breakdown. When found and questioned after her evening walk, Carrie tries to find the right words to say but “they swarmed in her head like insects”. O’Neal even uses atmosphere: On her way to the clinic, “Buildings on either side formed a canyon through which the taxi moved”. Later, Carrie views the clinic elevator as threatening to shake itself apart. At this point, Carrie herself is struggling to hold herself together.

Near the start of The Language of Goldfish, we see Carrie visiting a psychiatrist. He asks her about what triggered the kaleidoscope of colors and shapes. She tries to remember and flashes back to incidents with her family, at school, and even at an art gallery. I do not know that the novel was helped by our meeting Carrie after she was already on the road to recovery. It might have been less confusing and more suspenseful to start with her descent. As it is, we meet her after her hospital stay, which by the way is glossed over . Then via flashbacks learn how she ended up with these daily clinic appointments. About halfway through, we catch up to Carrie’s present and follow her struggle to recover. Carrie’s resistance to attend school dances and her persistence in asking her sister about the goldfish both points to her need to keep her world simple and static.

Zibby O’Neal established herself in the 1980’s as a voice for youth. There are aspects of her writing in The Language of Goldfish that I appreciate; others that I disliked. Her descriptions are at times crafted: “The train flowed smoothly, as if gliding on a ribbon. A few people got off, a few people got on, and a cold air moved along the floor of the car.” Other times they are startling, as in these examples: “fell dead in the dark wet cave of her mouth”. And sometimes they sounded odd, such as in these examples: “… steam rise and umbrella over her”. While Zibby O’Neal adds complexity to Carrie’s story with the plentitude of people in her life, O’Neal also overwhelmed me with an abundance of minor characters. Pretty much anyone Carrie met had a name: from her siblings to the household maid, her school classmates, the children of her art teacher, the members of her field hockey team, and even her hair dresser. I don’t recall her naming the taxi driver, but he was a rare exception. Moreover, some of those depictions were pretty sleep-inducing: “She sat behind Katherine Fowles in English, in front of Laura Mott. Across the aisle was Jerome Taylor, who had acne.”

The Language of Goldfish is about reluctance to but also inevitability of change. In an interview, Zibby O’Neal told how she had been making up stories before she could write. At a young age, she established her own space by sitting under a tree and making up stories. She likened it to moving to another country. She also admitted that as an adult she dislikes that she “has lost that passport”. This sentiment seeps into Carrie’s story, making it realistic but also a little sad. I ended up feeling a little bit like Peter Pan, in that I wish we could all stay young forever. At the same time the story is hopeful, for Carrie perseveres and matures in her own unique way.

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?

4 Responses to "The Language of Goldfish by Zibby O’Neal"

[…] book I loved was Language of Goldfish by Zibby O’Neal. Although not in the same literary class as Shizuko’s Daughter, the […]

Thanks for linking to my review!

I just finished reading The Language of Goldfish last night and woke up feeling that I needed to talk to Zibby because I was very frustrated by the ending of the book.

The whole book deals with Carrie’s mental illness which shows itself by her losing her sense of time and reality. Her parents are ineffectual and embarrassed; they are unwilling to accept that their daughter needs help.

I liked Carrie and the description of her ever increasing illness because they were appropriate for the age group of her readers.


What really bothers me however, is that Zibby had the opportunity to make am important statement about mental illness and how many people it affects and how difficult it is to deal with but she chose the easy way out and simply said “growing up is harder for some people”.

That’s the best she could do ?????

Carrie’s stay at a mental hospital and daily visits to a psychiatrist (who can afford that?) were WAY beyond normal growing up events.

I teach middle school students and thought I had found a great book to recommend to them but the ending is such a disappointment because it trivializes Carrie’s mental illness that I don’t think I will.

I wish Zibby would go back and rewrite a better ending.

While like you I appreciated the realistic description of Carrie’s illness, I also felt disappointed with how Zibby O’Neal glazed over the “cure” for it. She could have made a choice to write a straightforward story about suicide, one where Carrie’s act was a reaction to not wanting to grow up and not to a mental illness. In choosing to also integrate mental illness, I agree that she owed readers a fuller treatment. Young adult literature was in its infancy when Zibby wrote The Language of Goldfish; I wonder what she would write today?

Speaking as a teacher myself, perhaps you could use The Language of Goldfish as a launching point for a discussion about mental illness? In case you are interested in reading other examples of young adult problem literature, the article Using Young Adult Problem Fiction and Nonfiction to Create Critical Readers written by a teacher includes an annotated list. Maybe some of the books on it would make good reading choices?

I have also added a link on Allison’s Book Blog under Book Lists and will myself read some of them over the upcoming months. If anyone has already read some of the books on the list, what are your reactions to them?

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