Review of the Day: A Tree for Mr. Fish by Peter Stein
I wonder who put a cap on the weirdness of children’s book publishing. Remember when picture books produced in America were allowed to get really weird? Like, In the Night Kitchen / The Missing Piece style weird? Nudity and grandiose metaphors and all that jazz. I’m not saying that there aren’t odd picture books out there today. Absolutely there are! But more than half the time, when I see a book for kids that traipses into seriously odd territory, I’ll find it originally hailed from Europe or something. As such, I treasure U.S. picture books that don’t follow the fold. The ones that make me think “How did this get published?” and “Thank god this was published!” at the same time. I don’t ask for much. Just downright odd subjects. Something like A Tree for Mr. Fish. Now there’s a book comfortable in its own interior logic. Exceedingly simple with an equally simple message (message: Don’t be rude and loud) you wouldn’t expect it to be as wackadoodle as it is. And yet, here we are.
A cat and a bird meet in a tree. A normally pleasant moment for them, they are almost immediately interrupted by the fish that’s already there. By its logic it had a much harder time getting into the tree, and therefore it should be the only one allowed to stay. When pressed, the fish explains that there was a time once when the waters rose so high that they enveloped this tree. And that, dear friends, was the moment when the fish got so attached to it. Small logical fallacies, like the fact that fish can’t breathe out of water (“No wonder I’m always so uncomfortable”), are solved with the aid of a mobile fish bowl. The cat and the bird leave, but note to the fish that it is being very loud and very rude. And loneliness, it turns out, is an excellent motivator for mending your ways.
The name “Peter Stein” sounded familiar to the old librarian noggin when I first saw this book. Where had I heard it before? I read on the bookflap that he’d done something called the “Galore” series but it wasn’t ringing any bells… until it was. Waitaminute….. did they mean Cars Galore? Cars Galore, illustrated by Bob Staake, was one of the greatest works of mind-blowing weirdness to come to my aid when I was a parent of young children. That book, so chock full of bizarre associations, funny details, and sheer strangeness was a balm to me when it was published. Even its board book form couldn’t hide what a funky little number it was. The other “Galore” books that followed (Trucks Galore, Toys Galore, Bugs Galore, etc.) had their hearts in the right place but Cars was always clearly the best. It also allows that transition to standalone titles like A Tree for Mr. Fish to make a little more sense. Except that where Cars Galore found joy in increasing excess, Mr. Fish only pulls out the big guns when the time is right. Its secret weapon? Deadpan snark.
You see, I consider this book ideal storytime fare. Not every picture book is cut out to work a room of kids. Kids are discerning creatures. Bore them and they’ll have few to no qualms about informing you that you have failed them. You haven’t truly bombed in front of an audience until you’ve bombed in front of first graders. For this reason I always keep a sharp lookout for picture books that have that rare readaloud quality. And baby, A Tree for Mr. Fish has it by the truckload. That certain je ne sais quoi. That ineffable quality you need to make a book come alive for a group. When you read this book out loud you have so many different options laid out in front of you. Try them all! Consider making your voice a smooth deadpan for every animal on the page except Mr. Fish. Make Mr. Fish the Oscar the Grouch of the book, Bronx accent and all. Or, why not go a different route? Mr. Fish could be all prim and proper while the other animals are simply baffled. Consider a wide range of Mr. Fish voices. Smooth. Snarky. Valley Girl. They’re all possible.
Which brings us to the matter of a book actually being funny. My own kids are a hard audience sometimes, but I was determined to get a laugh out of them with this one. Aiding me was the fact that Mr. Fish (and, later other fish) is so blasé about the fact that he can’t breathe. Basically, the fish in this book treat it with the same level of seriousness you might bestow upon finding a piece of spinach caught in your teeth. They don’t like it, but what can you do? Timing is key, of course. Mr. Stein is quite good at figuring out just the right moment when the very calm cat and bird comment that Mr. Fish is loud and rude, only to have him retort at the top of his gills, “I AM NOT LOUD OR RUDE!” The solution that comes at the end of the book is also very funny, though I have witnessed grown adults debate its relative merits. Don’t pay it much mind. Kids know what Mr. Stein is getting at.
Finally, I am pulling out the big guns. The very last reason you should love this book: It contains a narwhal with a party hat on its horn. Unless you’re made of stone, you cannot deny the beauty of that gesture. But just in case your heart is made of a fibrous substance, unyielding and plasticky, I’m not worried. Reading this book aloud, you will instantly find yourself slipping into the right cadences. This is snarkless snark. A message book that slips its messaging into the folds of its pages with exquisite subtlety. It is also funny. And friends, I will go a long, far ways to defend any book for kids that is truly and honestly funny. Make a date to read this one to a large group of kids very soon.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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