Review of the Day: Dear Fish
A book best described by the following Ben Franklin witticism, "Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days". Bonus fact: Chris Gall did the covers of the "Wee Free Men" books.
After bursting onto the children’s literature scene with his aunt’s, “America the Beautiful”, Chris Gall turns his sights on one of my favorite picture book tropes: wacked out kookiness. In the style of such greats as Eric Rohmann and David Wiesner, Gall has brought a unique illustration style to bear upon a silly wonderful idea. If the storytelling (which he happens to be quite good at) doesn’t get you, the multi-faceted fish will. Beautiful and bizarro.
When Peter Alan visited the beach with his family, he had a wonderful time. Such a good time, in fact, that he found a bottle and placed the following note in it: “Dear Fish, Where you live is pretty cool. You should come visit us someday. Plus my Mom makes good pies. Sincerely, Peter Alan”. Peter has no idea, however, of what he has wrought until next morning. Suddenly, the town is infested with curious fish. They’re in Peter’s bathtub and popping up in people’s popcorn. They’re being blown up like balloons and “helping” out at the beauty parlor. It’s a bit of a problem. Peter comes home from school feeling, “more than a little slimy” so he writes a very nice thank-you note to the fish hinting broadly that it’s time to leave. The fish take the hint and everything returns back to normal. That is, until Peter finds a note in a bottle on the shore not long thereafter. A note reading, “Dear Humans…”
A good illustrator (i.e. Gall) is one thing. A good illustrator who knows how to write for children, however, is entirely another. Gall has a very good ear for writing sentences that lend themselves to reading aloud. The book is punctuated with sounds like, “a crash, a smash, a wiggling and a jiggling”. Or , “chomping and a slurping, a gnawing and a burping”. None of this comes across as forced or feeling like the artist is trying too hard. I can’t imagine anything worse than a book this purty ruined by bad writing. By the way, on Gall’s endpapers he places all the fish that appear in this book with clear and concise labels saying what their names are. There is also a small note reading, “There are 10 fish puns within the pictures of this book. Can you find them?”. I’m twenty-eight years old and I found six at most. Be sure to check both the front AND the endpapers since different fish are labeled on both. And since the library I work in is the kind of library that tends to glue such covers directly to the books (shudder) I know some of this information will be lost. Lackaday.
As for the pictures themselves, they definitely resemble brightly colored woodcuts. A quick glance at the publication page, however, and we find that they are created by (deep breath everyone), “hand engraving clay-coated board and then digitizing with Adobe Illustrator for adjustments and color”. I haven’t a clue what that means (“clay-coated board”, when said aloud, sounds like a colloquial way of phrasing one’s own boredom), but however it’s done, it’s drop dead gorgeous in the end. If I could frame any print from this book I would take the image of the mother with the octopus on her head and place it on my wall to look at each and every day. Lovely lovely loveliness. There are also some nice little details that could get lost in all the eye-popping splendor. For example, when a school of fish invade a children’s classroom (that’s ONE pun I found), you can definitely see a kid holding his nose at the onslaught. One stinky fish is one thing. Dozens and dozens of stinky fish is quite another.
What’s most interesting about these pictures, though, is the time period Gall has placed these pictures in. It’s veeeery 1950s. From Mom going to the beauty parlor and baking pies to Dad building a treehouse, mowing the lawn, and loading up the old wood-sided station wagon, Gall has set his story firmly in small-town America. All the usual tropes are here. Baseball games, rodeos, and small classrooms with chalkboards. Nostalgia is very big in picture books these days, and Gall is obviously making use of the fact. If that’s your bag, cool. If not, just know what this book is like beforehand.
“Dear Fish” bears perhaps the greatest resemblance to David Wiesner’s, “Tuesday”. Simply substitute frogs for fish. Just the same, “Dear Fish” stands entirely on its own. It doesn’t overdo the puns (thank heavens) and is just a great story to read to children. The fact that you’ll stare entranced at the purdy pictures is just a bonus, really. In a word, stunning. Well worth a glance or two.