Susanna Hill asked on Facebook the other day what everyone was reading on a snowy winter’s day. I thought about what’s been on my nightstand, and what would be a good, longer story for parents and children to share. Today’s Perfect Picture Book came to mind, especially as we acknowledge the one-year anniversary of the current administration in the US, and think about what we tell kids about questioning authority, respecting others, and being receptive to those who are different from us.
Title: The Little Black Fish
Written By: Samad Behrangi
Illustrated By: Farshid Mesghali
Translated By: Azita Rassi
Publisher/date: Tiny Owl Publishing Ltd./2016 (first published in Persian, Kanoun Parvaresh Fekri, Iran/1968)
Suitable for Ages: 7 and up
Themes/Topics: daring to be different; curiosity; exploration; death; #ReadYourWorld
As the nights grew longer and the year turned towards winter once more, an old fish settled herself to tell a story. She was telling the story to her twelve thousand grandchildren fishes. It was an exciting story full of danger and some sadness, but it was a story that also carried wisdom. The old fish wanted her grandchildren to learn from Little Black Fish’s story without them having to go into the dangers and sadnesses of life themselves.
The Little Black Fish dreams of a world beyond the stream. He ventures forth to learn what lies downstream, and in so doing, he encounters many wonderful things, and overcomes, many, but not all, dangers.
Links to Resources:
- Discover more about Iran, where the author lived and the illustrator still lives;
- Learn about rivers and streams;
- Explore a new place or see what’s beyond the next hill or up the next street. Draw a picture of something new that you discover.
Why I Like this Book:
Although the word count is high in this story within a story, the many layers of The Little Black Fish make it well worth reading. I think even very young kids will relate to the Little Black Fish and his desire to see the world and meet other, different creatures. Behrangi captured the boredom, questioning and curiosity of young children in this spunky fish, and perceptive children will view it as a mirror into their own behavior.
I also like that this fish states clearly what many dreamers, social activists, and others have only thought: “I don’t want to spend my life swimming up and down and around, and then grumbling that there isn’t anything more to life. Perhaps there is more to life, and perhaps the world is more than our stream!”
Mesghali’s graphic illustrations date to 1968, but seem fresh and contemporary. Young children will enjoy picking out the distinctive Little Black Fish as he is depicted on his journey.
In “About the Book”, the editors reveal that the Shah’s government in Iran banned The Little Black Fish in 1968 when it first was published as it “was written and read as an allegory for a nation in which it was dangerous to dare to be politically different.” Even today, the story of a fish who dares to be different, to mingle with creatures of different species (or we could substitute race/religion/nationality/class), question his elders and leave the protective stream (or we could substitute home/neighborhood/school/country) to see the world will resonate with children, and adults, of all ages, I think.
A Note about Craft:
I mentioned above that The Little Black Fish is a story within a story. This works well, as it allows for a happy ending, even though, spoiler alert, the black fish dies at the end of his story. Interestingly, one of the 12,000 grandchildren listening to the story kept thinking about the Little Black Fish, the stream and the wonderful creatures described. That little red fish was female – a good reminder that curiosity is not gender-restricted.
Death figures prominently in this story. Not only does the Little Black Fish die, but he accuses his mother of killing his friend, a snail, the Fish encounters a doe wounded by a hunter, a crab munches on a frog, and pelicans devour small fish. Although death and the circle of life are depicted in American picture books, I found Behrangi’s depictions to be less sugar-coated than that of most contemporary writers for young children. As author Matt de la Peña asked in a recent article in Time, however, is the role of the writer to expose children to difficult topics, “to tell the truth or preserve innocence?” I think by reading books like The Little Black Fish, we can learn how authors from different cultures and/or times handle this question and learn from these approaches.
Azita Rassi translated The Little Black Fish into English for this edition, which is very helpful for those of us who don’t read Persian. Translations such as this are essential for those hoping to #ReadYourWorld and learn about important works and traditions from other cultures.
Discover more books published by Tiny Owl Publishing Ltd, “an independent publishing company committed to producing beautiful, original books for children”, founded on the “belief that stories act as bridges – providing pathways to new experiences whilst connecting us to here and there” and publishing a number of books by Iranian authors and illustrators.
According to his website, Meshghali continues to create art today in his Tehran studio. He has been awarded the first Graphic Prize, Sixth International Children Books’ Fair in Bologna, for The Little Black Fish
in 1968, an Honorary Diploma, Bratislava Biannual, Czechoslovakia, for The Little Black Fish in 1971, and the “Hans Christian Anderson Award” for his contribution to children’s books illustration in 1974.
While not currently available in US book shops, The Little Black Fish is available through the Book Depository which ships for free to the US.
This Perfect Picture Book entry is being added to Susanna Hill’s Perfect Picture Books list. Check out the other great picture books featured there!