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Uplifting Picture Books That Don't Preach
by Chris Gall
Little, Brown & Company,(May 2006)
Peter Alan goes to the beach with his family, and throws a message in a bottle into the ocean, inviting the fish to come visit him. And visit him they do, the town suddenly becoming overpowered by fish and ocean dwellers of many different kinds and sizes doing impossible things--cat fish eating the lawn, puffer fish puffing up and being used as balloons, an octopus taking over the beauty saloon. It gets so out of hand that Peter Alan has to write another note, encouraging the fish to go back home--and he's made to promise that he won't ever speak to them, write to them, or signal to them again. But next time Peter and his family go to the beach, they find a note from the fish waiting for them, inviting the family to visit them under the ocean--and so they do.
Gall (America the Beautiful) weaves fantasy and humor together to create an entertaining adventure. He tells readers right away in the endpapers that there 10 fish puns to be found. The fish jokes lie especially in the illustrations, if you know what the particular fish names are--such as the jelly fish picking up a jar of peanut butter, the bull shark not being able to be ridden in the rodeo, the hammerhead shark hammering wood, and more. The text often gives a hint as to the type of fish. For readers who don't know the names of particular fish, they're in luck; the end papers depict each fish with a label next to them. This adds to the book, allowing any reader to get the fish puns, and adding an educational factor in a fun way. Where humor or a play on the fish name and event is not used, great fantasy still is, with a whale floating above the town like a great hot-air balloon, the octopus taking over the beauty saloon, and more. This is a fun, zany ocean-dwellers-meet-humans tale.
The text starts off like a story, rich with specific details, setting, and events, but with the arrival of the fish it becomes episodic, moving from linked scene to linked scene of each ocean-dweller manifestation in the town. It's fun to see each new scene, but I found the movement from story and the focus on the main character to scenes where the main character doesn't even appear to be slightly jarring and not quite as interesting or as strong as it might be. Still, Peter Alan shows up both at the beginning and end of the story, creating a nice bookend feeling.
Sound effects are incorporated into the text to underscore what the ocean dwellers are doing. For me they interrupted the flow of the text and story, but I can see them appealing to children. The text never names the fish or even their appearance in the town; instead, it is left up to the illustrations to show the reader. This works well, and may even add to the fun as readers are left to spot what is happening, with the straight-man text building up the fantasy in the illustrations.
The ending is particularly satisfying with the introduction of the ocean-dwellers' note, and the illustration of Peter and his family going into the ocean in their car; there's a sense that something similar or just as fantastic as the story is about to happen, and this brings an uplifting feeling and a sense that the adventure is going to continue or repeat all over again, which is the perfect ending for a fantasy.
The greatest strength in the book is the illustrations; their humor and quirky fantasy brings laughter and a sense of wonder, and they hold great appeal, especially in their depicting ocean dwellers doing impossible and fantastical things. Some illustrations are giggle-worthy, such as the puffer fish being used as balloons, some are laugh-out-loud illustrations such as the surprised, worried face of a woman with an octopus sitting on top of her head as it works on her hair, and some are both funny and inspiring such as the school of fish flying in and out of a school-room window.
Gall's illustrations are reminiscent of wood cuttings, with bold, clear lines; an abundance of strong lines used for both shading and design; somewhat flat characters; and evenly-laid color with little or no gradation. The illustrations have a retro feel to them, both through their style and through the setting. Gall uses a palette of dark reds, browns, greens, yellows, and blues, and these colors also add to the retro feel.
Each illustration is contained in a thick black border with a strip of the white of the page around it; many illustrations are one per page, while others are the entire spread or a spread and a quarter. There are also many unbordered small illustrations like close-up details that appear next to or around the text. In some illustrations, part of the image bursts out of the border, and this adds to the visual appeal.
There is a zany, surreal feel to this fantasy that may open doors to readers' imaginations or propel them into their own daydreams--an earmark of good fantasy and good art. Recommended.
-Added May 2007
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