NOTE: I gave two different versions of this talk at two different conferences in 2018. The first, at the IBBY Congress in Athens, was the basis of a much shorter essay that appeared in the IBBY journal, Bookbird. You can find the essay HERE. The version of the talk represented here on the website is based on the keynote given at a picture-book conference at Cambridge–I discuss my response to that conference HERE.
First, an important announcement.
In the words of the main character played by Charlton Heston in an old science fiction movie,
It’s people. Soylent Green is made out of people. They’re making our food out of people. You’ve gotta tell them. You’ve gotta tell them!
Soylent Green is people!
I want to remind you of that famous moment in movie history because in the more comforting world of children’s picture books Soylent Green is not people. But listen to me, because I gotta tell you–fish are. In children’s picture books, more often than not, fish is people.
This talk is about children’s picture books about fish. Lots of them.
I found my way to these books and this topic by thinking about what I wrote about picture books in my book Words about Pictures thirty years ago and, more important what I didn’t write—what I didn’t know back then, or ignored, or simply took for granted as I explored the range of ways in which the pictures and words in picture books combined to communicate information or tell stories. Considering what I might have taken for granted got me thinking about the kinds of things we all tend to take for granted, as part of what the sociological theorist Pierre Bourdieu calls a habitus: an implicit understanding of what forms of behavior are appropriate or desirable or likely to be productive or have power within a specific field. A habitus consists not merely of knowledge of explicitly stated rules and conventions, but also, an understanding, conscious and unconscious, of how best to operate in terms of those rules and conventions; in Randal Johnson’s words, it’s a “feel for the game.” In the field of children’s picture books, practitioners—authors, illustrators, publishers, editors, librarians, teachers, children’s literature scholars, even child readers—operate with specific sets of expectations and practices, many of which they are not especially aware of. But what most interests me here is the way in which individual picture books represent and contain the evidence of the positions their producers or purchasers occupy—reveal and can be interpreted in terms of what their editors, authors, illustrators, and especially picture-book theorists named Nodelman, have taken for granted about what children’s picture books are, and how and what they should communicate.
I can think of two ways that might be done. The first might be to look at books that practitioners in the field award honours to.But the picture books that win the American Caldecott Medal or the British Kate Greenaway Medal tend to represent the ideals of practitioners: what people believe children’s books ought ideally to be rather than what really works in terms of keeping publishing houses and most writing careers afloat. Consider, for instance, the gulf between the current emphasis on diversity in award lists as opposed to the still traditional white middle class cisgender focus of the bulk of books that get published and bought and sold.
A more revealing approach might be to consider those more typical books—- the ones that convey what has more broadly-based power, and that might therefore reveal the kinds of beliefs that practitioners with a feel for the game so take for granted that they are not even aware of it—-or, if we are aware of it, not always aware of the implications of it. My goal today is to make myself more aware of those implications.
One such set of beliefs is revealed, I think, in the undeniable fact that so many children’s books aren’t about children, or even about human beings.
They are about other creatures–creatures like Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit, A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, Mo Willem’s bus-driving pigeon, E.B. White’s Charlotte the spider and Wilbur the pig. Nevertheless, whether spider or pigeon, these characters look like animals but talk and act like people. My conversations about children’s literature with many people over many decades make the reason for that clear: most people assume that young readers believe or should believe that all stories are really about themselves and offer them lessons about themselves—about proper human behaviour. But while the stories produced to satisfy these assumptions are actually about their readers, the creatures who represent those readers are animals because, we tend to believe, young readers are themselves animal-like beings—less advanced than adults– and can, therefore, relate to animal characters.
It was at this point in thinking about the habitus expressed in picture books about animal-like creatures that an important question occurred to me: in the process of teaching children how to be more human, what might these stories be teaching them about spiders or pigeons? In encouraging young readers to think of these animals as beings like themselves, do they encourage a lack of attention to the otherness and difference of creatures of other species?
I’ve been encouraged to ask questions like these by my recent reading in post- humanist theory, a consideration of what Rosi Braidotti identifies as “the humanistic arrogance of placing Man at the centre of world history” and then viewing other creatures as inferior to Man—less advanced, less than human or sometimes, as has happened traditionally in relation to women and people of other races, less than completely human. Or to put it another way, more animal-like. As Lindsay Lerman says, then, “humanity is a situation, a project, created and maintained only through a constant striving to separate from animality. This, despite the fact that humanity is animal. Humanity (co) exists with, and in the face of, animality. To cultivate humanity, then, is to cultivate a discontinuity with the world” (303). In response to this denial of the animal aspect of humanity, Braidotti suggests that “Anti-humanism rejects the dialectical scheme of thought, where difference or otherness played a constitutive role, marking off the sexualized other (woman), the racialized other (the native) and the naturalized other (animals, the environment or earth). Posthumanism is an effort to rejoin what humanism has put asunder.”
For my purposes here, the most significant group of people that humanism has traditionally viewed as less than completely human is children. Like women and racialized others, children are not humans. Or at least, not quite human—animal-like, more like animals than socialized adults are. Socialization is almost by definition the diminishment of animality, and as Zoe Jaques suggests, “children and animals share a rhetorical and restrictive linguistic stereotype; the expressions ‘behaving like an animal’ or ‘acting childishly’ operate as negative, regulating metaphors in everyday speech, applicable only to (adult) human behavior which operates outside of the civilized or socially acceptable.” I’m not convinced expressions like these are not also often applied to childlike behavior in children that adults don’t approve of—and often, even, childlike behavior in children adults claim to admire and describe as cute. Furthermore, the idea that children already behave like animals might well account for the vast array of children’s books about animals who think and act more or less like people and most often, learn to be at least a little less animal-like.
Or in the case of the books I’m talking about today, less fish-like. I decided to explore these matters by looking specifically at books about fish because fish seem to me to be less like people than most of the non-human characters that appear in children’s stories. While there are brave little toasters and hygienic broom families,most of the non-human characters in children’s stories are cats, dogs, pigs, mice, bears—mammals, just as humans are.
But fish are not mammals. They have no arms or legs. They have scales instead of hair and skin. They have no houses, and, as far as we know, don’t have all that much in the way of individual relationships with friends and relatives. Fish are significantly unlike people.
Neverthless, the fish in most of the hundred or so books I’ve looked at have names.
They often wear at least some items of human clothing.
They often live with their parents, in houses with human-type furniture in them. These fish are people.
The childlike voice that speaks the text of Louise Ehlert’s Fish Eyes says, “If I could put on a school of scales, add some fins and one of these tails, I’d close my eyes and then I’d wish that I’d turn into a beautiful fish.” The invitation to young readers to share the wish and to see these fish as themselves is obvious, and it makes explicit a strategy of identifying with fish characters in ways that turn them into people that many other books take for granted.
As the title of an anthology of poems edited by Neil Philip suggests, The Fish is Me. (31) That title is a quote from George Chappell “The Tub”:
My tub is an aquarium
In which the fish is me.
Another poem in the anthology, Alison Winn’s “If I Were a fish,” also focuses on the pleasure of imagining yourself “in the water all day long/ Like a slithery, slippery fish.”
While Deborah Freedman’s The Story of Fish and Snail agrees about the pleasure of imagining yourself as something else, it does by describing sea creatures who stop acting like sea creatures. Freedman’s picture book tells us that Fish and Snail are characters in a different picture book, a book within the book.
That might justify Fish’s invitation to Snail to simultaneously leave both its tank and its book and join him in exploring what happens in other books. But celebrating that departure in order to make Snail a role-model for young readers means not only that Snail can breathe out of water but also that he can make human-type choices, develop an unlikely human-type friendship with a creature of a different species, and experience adventure in stories about characters like pirates which are usually told about humans. Unlike the boy who imagines the fish is me, Snail becomes more like people—as in fact, do all the other fishlike beings who share Snail’s situation of being characters in picture books. (36) They invite readers to identify with fishlike beings in order to learn to be less animal-like–more completely human–themselves.
These picture books ignore (and encourage readers to ignore) the otherness of fish—the ways in which they are not human and might deserve respect for being different from us. In doing that, paradoxically, they also deny the sameness of fish to people, what they share with us as living beings outside the framework of the species-centric view of human excellence that humanist assumptions impose on them. In denying fish their fishiness, these books are simultaneously denying us humans our animal natures. They reveal a feel for the game of picture-book making and distributing by confirming basic, simply taken-for-granted humanist views about the inherent animality of children and the ongoing effort to make them more human.
Or are they in fact all doing that? According to Jaques, “To suggest . . . that an animal can simply be (mis)represented in order to peddle (or obscure) specific human agendas is a denial of the fact that animal representation automatically stimulates reflection upon, and potential anxiety about, real animals and their relations with human viewers.” I’d like to believe that, so I am asking these questions: Are there fish in children’s picture books about fish that are not people? Or are there fish in children’s picture books about fish that are people in ways that raise interesting questions either about fish or about people? I looked at almost a hundred books— some the kind of ingenious or imaginative books that might be considered for awards, many of them purely run-of-the-mill examples of a mainstream habitus, to find answers for these questions.
The most obvious place to look for less human fish might be in informational picture books that claim to be accurate about fish life. Deborah Lee Rose’s One Nighttime Sea does provide accurate information about a variety of sea creatures.
But it describes them in language that refers to things that people do: leafy sea dragons “go for a ride,” spider crabs “pretend they’re not there,” firefly squid “do a shimmering dance,” nudibranchs “show off their charms.” These phrases imply a human personality making specific choices rather than creatures acting as the members of their species always do.
Furthermore, the overall effect of the book is to view sea creatures as a spectacle of otherness—different from us in ways that turn them into a freak show intended to astonish their more normal and more normally and acceptably human audience.
While Candace Fleming’s award-winning Giant Squid resists the impulse to describe its central character in human terms, it, too, focus on exotic otherness:
In the cold, Cold dark, Creatures, Strange
And fearsome Lurk.
They have “ghostly, lidless eyes” and
A terrifying tongue-like ribbon of muscle Covered with sharp, tiny blades that
As demonic figures in a horror show, the squids are certainly inhuman—but in ways that make them more frighteningly non-human than merely acceptable as the beings they by nature are. These non-fiction books then represent two opposite problems: providing sea creatures with human attributes that diminish their separation from us, and providing them with non-human attributes that identify them as monstrous and thus diminish their connection to us . Neither leaves much room for a less oppositional post-humanist view.
But the bulk of the books I looked at are fiction—stories about imaginary fish. They share a number of qualities.
First, the fish in many of these books look alike.
They often remind me of Paul Klee’s fish paintings.
Like Klee’s fish and like the fish of cookie cutters, children’s colouring books, and goldfish crackers, they are often shown in a side view—less like real fish than a visual marker of fishiness, abstract and simple enough to suit what many adults often assume to be the simple tastes of children, a style that diminishes their connection to real fish.
They often appear in large groups, 51 52 53 54) which not only creates repetitive visual patterns but also seems to lead to their appearance in many counting books.
Some books use these simplified shapes simply to offer visual pleasure. Turning the pages cut in various shapes in Katsumi Komagata’s De blue au bleu creates stop- action sequences of unfolding events in the life cycle of salmon with less interest in scientific accuracy than in artistic ingenuity.
In Rain Fish, Louise Ehlert creates depictions of fish silhouettes from objects found on the streets more significantly ingenious than lifelike.
In Gomi’s Where’s the Fish and Stella Blackstone’s Secret Seahorse,(60 +, 61 +, 62 +) illustrators use the recognizability of the silhouettes of sea creatures to create visual puzzles, inviting young readers to find the shapes in unexpected places.
In Shark in the Park, Nick Sharatt complicates the game: the sightings of a shark fin all t
urn out to be more expectable sights in a city park—until the end.
But even the simplest shapes can take on human qualities—become people. According to its title, the first fish in Andy Mansfield’s One Lonely Fish experiences a human emotion—and it turns out that the last one does also.
Except for the one word “lonely,” these fish simply act as fish do, bigger ones eating smaller ones; but while it’s the reader who makes the predation happen in the act of turning the pages, there’s no cause for worry about initiating the violence—it’s too much fun. Rather than being humanized, these fish are objectified, colourful pieces in a fun game.
The title of Ros Moriarity’s Ten Scared Fish also ascribes a human emotion to fish afraid of a larger predator, but once more, the creatures here are less actual animals than they are pleasing abstract shapes—this time ones based in Australian aboriginal imagery.
But while Lucy Cousins’ Hooray for Fish (72, 73, 74) implies a similar focus on appearance by celebrating spotty and stripy ones as well as more whimsical creatures like fly fish and sky fish, eye fish and shy fish, its fish silhouette hero offers its mother a kiss.
And in Happy, Van Hout’s uses the basic fish silhouette to catalog a range of human emotions.
Still, Van Hout’s images all look much like other (7, and it would be hard to determine which emotion any of these fish represent without the accompanying single- word texts.
The fish in picture books often require the presence of language to suggest their humanity. To begin with, for instance, the fish in Rosy Lamb’s Paul Meets Bernadette (are identifiable as characters with those human names only in the verbal text; the picture show them merely as simplified fish shapes until we begin to see their human-like imaginings as Bernadette teaches Paul how to get past the boredom of an empty bowl by seeing things more creatively—a banana as a boat, a newspaper as a dress. Bernadette weaves a web of words around the real things as the words do around the pictures in the process of making what still look more or less like fish into people and into examples of imaginativeness for human readers. Captured in the net of human language, fish are hard to think of as just fish.
That applies even to the names we give pet fish. While the fish in Gianna Marin’s Splotch have different splotches, they look and act enough alike that people can hardly tell them part—any one of them can be attached to the name Splotch.
While Splotch’s human owner knows enough about his fish to realize that the replacement his mother buys after the cat eats it isn’t his pet, he later pretends that one of the other fish at the store is Splotch, a deception his mother happily accepts. Like so many of our pets, its humanity is in the eye of its human beholder and in its absorption into the systems of human thought and language.
And meanwhile, the life of the latest Splotch replacement goes fishily on— although probably not for long, as Marin implies at the end of the book where the cat who ate the original Splotch discovers a new potential victim. While a source of humour, the ironies in this book reveal the chilling contradictions of fish thought of as humans—both imprisoned in human constructs and still prone to their natural life as prey.
Chris Raschka’s Arlene Sardine offer a similar but darker joke.
The pictures merely show what happens when brislings are caught and canned; but the text gives one brisling a name and a desire to become a sardine and then happily describes how she gets what she wants, and as a fish with a human name and human desires, caught up in the web of language that makes creatures human,
Arlene becomes either a tragic heroine or an example of the dangers of getting what you wish for.
Or, more likely, and especially because of the simple shapes and bright colours of the cheerful pictures: a satiric commentary on the silliness inherent in the propensity of children’s books to humanize their animal characters—a propensity that might well allow a lot of young readers to get the joke. In my experience, they often do.
Arlene gets what she wished for. In Ehlert’s Fish Eyes, the poem by Winn, and many other books, wishing is key, I suspect simply because “wish” rhymes with “fish.” As well as versions of the Grimm tale about the fisherman who releases a fish in return for wishes, there are other stories based on it.
In Sam Hay’s Wish Fish, a fish grants a girl’s wishes until one of them turns dangerous and she realizes the trouble with getting what you think you want—as do the characters in many other books.
The fish Cynthia receives as a birthday present in Dan Yaccarino’s The Birthday Fish (94) agree to grant her wishes if she sets it free. But after a congenial walk to the lake, the fish and the girl forget about wishing and freedom and being naturally fishlike and happily return home together as pet and owner.
John Bush’s The Fish Who Could Wish uses the ability to indulge in human activities until it wishes to be just like other fish and thus loses the ability to act like a human, which seems to be understood here as a bad thing for a fish even though it looks like fun—so maybe this book is just a little posthumanist? Or more likely, it offers a lesson to people about being careful what you wish for because, as in The Birthday Fish, being just a fish in water would be a serious loss—less than human.
Wishing is an equally bad thing in Elsa Beskow’s The Curious Fish, in which a young perch interest in life on land leads to its capture by a human boy. While the subsequent wish of his Aunt Flounder, Uncle Bream, and Uncle Pike for feet to walk on land leads to Flash’s rescue, the fish nevertheless conclude, “It really is much better to glide through the water than to stumble along on two legs on dry land.” While this might be another joke about the silliness of books in which creatures like fish are made to act like people, it makes more sense as a humanistic invitation to readers to feel superior to the ignorance and species-centricity of creatures like fish who foolishly believe in the superiority of their own less than human kind. Beskow doesn’t seem to be all that aware of how that sort of folly might also affect humans.
In I Used to Be a Fish, Tom Sullivan confirms human superiority by describing how people evolved from sea creatures as if it were happening to just one being who chooses to leave the sea because “I got tired of swimming.” In a note, Sullivan acknowledges that evolution doesn’t happen because creatures want it to, then justifies describing it that way: “The scope of my character’s imagination, on the other hand, was absolutely true! Every one of us evolves. . . . over our lifetime–we grow up and change and dream big–and sometimes we even surprise ourselves by what we can achieve.” Or in other words, Sullivan lies about evolution in order to speak truth about human values—and in doing so, implies both that humans are superior to fish, having evolved beyond them, and that fish are interesting only in so far as they have the potential to be transformed into humans.
In Chris Wormell’s One Smart Fish, another fish who longs to go on land makes itself a pair of feet to get there, and then, feeling lonely, returns to the sea. But millions of years later the idea catches on, and eventually that leads to the existence of humans. While the fish’s decision to return to the sea might seem like a defence of the fish life, its human-like desire to be more like a human and the celebration of that idea eventually catching on undermines that possibility.
A third book about a fish involving into a human being, Marie-Francine Hebert’s The Amazing Adventures of Little Fish,also starts with a fish who wishes for and grows legs and becomes a person, sitting on shore and, weirdly, fishing. But then a final section speaks about how the same thing has happened to each of us, as a sperm becomes a human baby, dangerous to beings like its former self as it tips over a fish bowl. Once more, the entire history of evolution has been absorbed into praise for fish who act like humans and an implied distaste for the inhumanity of fish who act like fish.
Picture books often celebrate the transformation of fish into people simply by providing them with the kind human-looking lips, teeth, eyebrows and eyelashes that make them seem “cute.”
And while the mouths of actual fish tend to curve permanently upwards or downward, depending of their species, the upward curves of fish mouths in picture books inevitably invite a reading as being smiles, the downward curved ones as frowns or sadness. (111, 112, 113, 114, 115,116, 117)
The books also provide human meanings for other actual attributes of fish. The range of sizes of fish allow picture books to explore what it means to be small in an environment of larger beings—the basic condition of human childhood.
Jane Clarke’s Gilbert the Great celebrates friendship by exploiting the symbiotic relationship of large shark and much smaller remora.
In Kera LaReau’s Ugly Fish a bullying big fish is satisfying dealt with by an even bigger one, and in Kevin Sherry’s I’m the Biggest Thing in the Ocean another annoying bully ends up having to say, “I’m the biggest fish in this whale.”
Other books also feature big beings that bests arrogant smaller ones. Phillis Root’s Big Fish does in the fishermouse who tries to land him, and the little hat thief in John Klassen’s This is Not My Hat appears about to be devoured by the much larger fish whose hat he stole.
On the other hand, Ken Geist’s The Three Little Fish and the Big Bad Shark offers an undersea version of the three little pigs that of course describes how smaller beings defeat a larger enemy, and both Peter Bentley’s The Shark in the Dark and Leo Lionni’s Swimmy show a group of little fish scaring off a big one by banding together to look bigger than it is.
In Julia Donaldson’s The Snail and the Whale, the snail enlists humans to rescue its beached friend, and in William Steig’s Amos and Boris, the mouse finds some elephants to rescue its beached friend.
In Elizabeth Beresford’s The Smallest Whale, Sarah Brennan’s Storm Whale, and Benji Davies’ The Storm Whale, small human children save yet more beached whales. Yiva Karlssen’s Die Stora Vannen reverses this plot by having a whale save the small human child who has rowed out to sea to meet it. While different from each other, the human sociological and moral implications of the interactions between sea creatures and other beings of differing sizes are always front and center in these books and have very little to do with the actual circumstances of the lives of fish, where big fish regularly eat little ones and beached whales often die without human- oriented significance.
Fish come in groups called schools. In picture books, that leads to human-like schools underwater, complete with blackboards and unrealistic multi- species groups of pupils. It also leads to the expression of a range of topics related to human individuals in and out of social groups. There are, for instance, four books about an unattractive fish that no one will befriend until it saves the rest from certain death—just as happens to Rudolph, the reindeer with the red nose in the old Gene Autry song.
Cari Meister’s The Brave Puffer Fish may be ugly—note the human and humanist assumptions about physical beauty here—but after he uses his ability to change colour to lure a shark away, all the reindeer, um, I mean fish, love him. Andrew Clements’ Big Al scares off other fish until he rescues them from a fisherman’s net, and Ruth Galloway’s Smily Shark scares off other fish until it scares off the fisherman who nets them. While centrally about the friendship of a large shark and a minnow, Tammi Sauer’s Nugget and Fang’s also ends with the Shark saving all the fish and yet once more earning their love.
The human importance of love and friendship are also emphasized in Finding Nemo and Finding Dory, (142) picture books based on popular movies that not only chronicle how fish find their lost loved ones but also describe unlikely friendships among a range of sea creatures.
The lonely fish in fishbowls in Lerch’s Swim Swim, Rosy Lamb’s Paul and Bernadette, Devin Scillian’s Memoirs of a Goldfish, and Kelly di Pucchio’s Gilbert Goldfish Wants a Pet also all find companionship.
So, too, a little more strangely, do the main character in Troy Howell’s Whale in a Fishbowl once he reaches the ocean and the main character in Lemon Snicket’s Goldfish Ghost (146+), born on the top of a fishbowl, once he meets the friendly ghost of lighthouse keeper
In other books, friendships develop between goldfish and their traditional enemy, cats
The obvious multicultural and multiracial implications of these books is echoed bizarrely in James Howe’s Otter and Odder, in which an otter falls in love with a fish he himself identifies as his food source, until he talks himself into becoming a vegetarian and refraining from eating his loved one.
The solitary fish in Dan Bar-El’s A Fish Named Glub, also finds love, but not before the bubbles it produces provide visions that lead to love among the unhappily isolated humans who come near its bowl.
All these fish achieve happy endings by becoming less convincingly like fish and therefore, more useful as messages for young human readers. Lee Nordling’s Fish Fish Fish, which divides the pages into three strips in order to tells three comic-book-like stories about life undersea that interact with each other and that describe smaller fish interacting with each to save themselves from a larger one, actually spells out its messages.
So, too, do the end papers of two books by Linda Kranze, Only One You and You Be You, (153, 154, 155 +) in which the brightly painted stones that represent fish offer human-appropriate advice and the end papers are full of it. I have chosen that phrasing carefully.
“Believe that anything is possible,” says Kranze in You Be You. While some pet fish don’t find love, they do support Kranze’s project in fantasy adventures or dreams of fantasy adventures beyond their bowls.
A witch transforms the fish in Catharina Valkz’s Totoche et le Poisson Malheureux into a freer life as a bat , and both Taeeun Yoo’s Little Red Fish and Marjolaine LeRay’s April the Red Goldfish have extravagant dreams of freedom. On the other hand, neither the fish in Gro Dahle’s Akvarium nor the human girl who calls it Mother can escape the oppression of the tank, which might then be a sad allegory of life with a handicapped parent that nevertheless confirms once more that fish containers represent human confinement.
On the other hand, a fish dumped by its uncaring owner into the ocean In Philp K. Stead’s The Only Fish in the Sea is rescued so it can enjoy life in a much smaller fountain under the watchful eyes of caring humans
These books are all versions of the convention children’s home/away/home story in which bowls and tanks and fountains represent what home might mean for a protected but constricted child who experiences the joys and dangers of escaping it.
While all of the books I’ve looked at are actually about people, there are various degrees to which their characters act like fish. At one end of the spectrum, Grant’s Cat and Fish look like a cat and a fish but nothing in their behaviour is anything but human; while they “came from different worlds,” they can both survive on both land and sea and choose to live on the shore only because “fish was lonely for water.”
Similarly, Ruth Galloway’s Fidgety Fish is really just a human child with a human mother and a human child’s fidgetiness, and the only evidence that Joy Sorman’s Blob, The Ugliest Animal in the World is a fish is that he lives under water—as do real blobfish.
After winning an international (and apparently interspecies) ugliness contest and becoming famous above the waves, Blob doesn’t even look like a fish until the very last picture reveals that his apparently human feet might be carefully positioned versions of fins.
Blob is clearly a comic satire about human celebrity—not about fish at all except insofar as it can make fun of them in order to make its satiric point. But once you get past conventional assumptions and make yourself aware of it, there’s something inherently ridiculous about any and all creatures of other species acting like human beings. It’s not surprising that, like Blob–and Arlene Sardine—many books invite readers to be aware of and amused by the humanizing of fish. As in Dr. Seuss’s One Fish, Two Fish, sometimes it’s just a simple joke about how silly fish seem when they act like humans.
Similarly, the fish in Sally Lloyd-Jones’s Poor Doreen holds onto an umbrella even under water.
And in Barry the Fish with Fingers, Sue Hendra offers an absurd take on the name of a food enjoyed by many children by equipping a fish with fingers in the shape of that food but usable as human fingers are—for tickling, for instance.
Books about fish living in human environments under the sea express a similarly surreal absurdity. The fact that Don’t Eat the Teacher and Base’s Sign of the Seahorse take place underwater is signalled only by their fish characters floating through human rooms and streets.
Alternately, fish absurdly come to land in Erik Rohmann’s Clara and Asha, in which a girl imagines a sculpture coming alive; in Chris Gall’s Dear Fish, in which a boy invites fish to visit his town; and in Sayre’s Trout Trout Trout, and Eva Muggenthaler’s Fish on a Walk, where the fish simply dress and act like people.
Bizarre combinations of real fish and what might be mechanical ones in human rooms under the sea occur in David Wiesner’s Flotsam and in Monique Zepeda’s Kassunguilà.
Less intentionally surreal, the fish in most picture books I looked at do act a little more like fish. While the characters in Finding Nemo and Finding Dory and in Julia Donaldson’s Tiddler and Snail and the Whale talk like people, when their fish bodies—a lack of arms to hold things or the inability to breath out of water— becomes problematic, their human minds and language allow them to transcend those limitations.
Somewhat fishier are books that impose human meaning on specific fishy characteristics. Gilbert the Great describes the real-life symbiotic relationship of a shark and a remora as if it were a human friendship, and Deborah Dessen’s Pout Pout Fish interprets the downturned mouth characteristic of certain types of fish as what it might mean on a human face. In “The Frown Fish” in Meomi’s Octonauts series, efforts to stop an apparently sad fish from frowning are resolved when it turns out it’s the kind of fish that swims upside down: it was smiling all along.
As I suggested earlier, the relative sizes of big and little fish and what humans often see as the ugliness of some actual species of fish often become evidence of how people should and should not behave. Alternately, Marcus Pfister’s Rainbow Fish starts with the kind of real fish humans find attractive and then describes how it mutilates itself to make others happy.
It’s readable as a positive lesson in human generosity; but if we keep in mind that actual rainbow fish look as they do with no moral or social implications, it turns into a tragic tale of self-harming, both by scale removal and by adopting human values.
Like The Rainbow Fish, the fish in many books start out behaving like fish and then become more human. In Octopus Alone, for instance, Dünya Srinivasan accurately describes the solitary life of an octopus before allowing it to feel a human need for friends.
Further along the spectrum away from human elements and into purer states of fishiness are fish whose act like fish except for their ongoing possession of human consciousness—a quality that for me often makes their theoretically cute stories into nightmarish horror. Imagine being the person you are with the consciousness you have stuck alone in a solitary fishbowl, as happens in Memoirs of a Goldfish, Gilbert Goldfish Wants a Pet Friends, and Paul Meets Bernadette. No wonder the authors of these books want to find friends for their characters.
The horror rises closer to the surface in another book whose title clearly announces that fish is not people: Leo Lionni’s Fish is Fish. After a childhood friend who grew up to be a frog returns to the pond they once shared to report on life elsewhere, a fish tries to leave, too, nearly dies, and concludes that fish is indeed only and always fish. As a lesson for people about accepting things as they are, this book is distressingly narrowminded. But considered from a posthuman perspective, its rejection of the idea that fish should behave like anything other than fish might be admirable.
In Sanad Bherangi‘s Little Black Fish, (191) a fish living with others who think that going around in circles is the only thing possible also leaves the pond.
While his resulting death appear to again offer encouragement to accept things as they are, the context of the revolution in Iran that forms the background for this book turns the defiant fish into evidence that danger does not make a valid quest for greater freedom unreasonable or undesirable. As a result, this fish seems more like a brave human martyr than a posthuman fish proving that fish is fish—and so, yet another fish caught in the web of human concerns and human language.
That web can itself be as constraining as the little black fish finds life in his pond. In Louis the Fish, Arthur Yorinks depicts a human who escapes social constraint into the life of a fish, safely outside human thought and language. After Louis, who hates the restrictive life as a butcher in the family business, wakes up one day as a fish, he lives in a tank happily ever. His preference for life as a non- human fish undermines the humanist idea that fish are less than people and significant only in relation to how people use them.
A few fish aren’t human at all. The one in Max Has a Fish cannot be made to dance like a human despite his human owner’s efforts to teach it to him.
The one in Ryan Higgins’ We Don’t Eat Our Classmates is viciously fishlike enough to stop young Penelope Rex, a dinosaur, from eating her human classmates, not by being nice to her or befriending her, as human adults might hope human children would, but by trying, as fish do, to take a chomp out of her.
Asked by his friend Sophie to look after her pet in A.E. Canon’s Sophie’s Fish,Max, who knows nothing about fish, worries about how to deal with it, imagines it acting like a human, playing pirates or reading stories like Herring Potter or sitting on the front porch and crying. But Sophie assures Jake that all he has to do is feed the fish twice a day—that it is not in any way human or in need of being thought of as one, but just a manageable pet, other but lesser. And then, the last illustration shows the fish as anything but that—something truly alien, an animal like Jacques Derrida’s cat, which, as he famously suggests “can look at me. It has a point of view regarding me. The point of view of the absolute other,” and is therefore “uninterpretable, unreadable, undecidable, abyssal and secret. Wholly other. . . .” This is truly a fish beyond the limited categories of humanist thought, one with the potential to open up a space for posthuman perception even though this book uses its otherness merely as a joke on Jake.
And finally, there is a book about fish, indeed a book called Fish, that has no fish in it at all—a book which sums up how human beings impose human thoughts and language on fish in ways that replace actual fish with human language and human ideas about them.
In this book, it turns out that what people are fishing for is not fish but letters—the letters F I S H. Having caught them, they can forget their connection to living creatures altogether. They can attach F I S H to other letters, further contexts. They can create a F I N I S H that has nothing to do with fish, finish with fish, replace fish and the real world they occupy with language and the human-centered ideas that blind us to what the world and other beings in it might look like beyond and outside them.
That is pretty well what all the picture books I looked at do They readily confirm the habitus we involved in the field of picture-book production, distribution, and commentary tend usually to take for granted. Once we realize that, we can see how books like these might blind young readers to other, less human-centered ways of thinking about fish—and consequently, less human-centred ways of thinking about ourselves and other humans. What those way might look like, I have to admit, I’m far too immersed in humanist ideas to see. I can only embark on an attempt to do it and recommend that others try it also—try to see what fish—and other animals, and children and other people we tend to think of as less than ourselves–might be and mean if we removed our humanist blinders. So listen to me, because I gotta tell you: fish is not fish. (200 + +) In children’s books, fish is people. These people-like, pre- post-humanist fish, I hope, are on the way to becoming history. Those fish are finished. And so am I. (202) Thank you for your attention.