One of many good things about working with children and young adults over the years is their ability to think outside the box. Their vision of everyday life, problems, solutions, from the big picture to the tiniest detail, is unencumbered. Some of the best moments in education are listening, watching and rereading the recorded brainstorming sessions of and with students. Their creativity never ceases to amaze me.
It is fortunate indeed when that freshness is maintained in someone's mind throughout their life; when their wonder continues. Where would our world be if not for the inventors pursuing their passions with persistence? Papa's Mechanical Fish (Margaret Ferguson Books, Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers) by the versatile Candace Fleming with illustrations by Boris Kulikov delves into the possible world of Lodner Phillips, an inventor who fashioned one of the first submarines in the 1850s.
This is my papa.
And this is his backyard workshop, where he spends his days thinking...
and inventing things.
The young narrator, daughter Virena, goes on to note the unique, helpful, unusual and playful, items made which are never quite what they are expected to be. Papa is not one to give up even though perfection continues to allude him. What he really needs is the right idea!
A trip fishing at the pier along Lake Michigan and a casual question asked by Virena has Papa dropping his pole and running from his family back to his workshop. The right idea has found its way into his imaginative, fruitful mind. Weeks later his newest work is displayed for the family, a small barrel-like contraption with a breathing tube and a pole for pushing the vessel along the lake bottom. Will Papa be able to move under water like a fish?
Like his other projects, this one is not near perfection...yet. Whitefish becomes Whitefish II, and Whitefish III each bigger with more innovations, making them more and more fishlike thanks to the inquiring minds of Virena, Mary, Cyril, the baby, Wilhelmina, and Rex, the bulldog. They are better but still flawed. After much noise and secrecy, Papa reveals his latest invention, Whitefish IV. Papa has exceeded their wildest dreams. Ever practical in each situation, Mama has brought along lunch for what promises to be an unforgettable ride.
From the opening page Candace Fleming requests readers to join in the story by having the daughter speak directly to us. She makes us further feel welcome with her descriptions of the sounds coming from inside Papa's workshop and on each excursion to the lake. We are part of the story when the narrative switches to dialogue between the family members. The undercurrent of humor adds to the warmth and generosity of this family toward their inventor father and husband; the children's comments and Mama always seeming to have at hand exactly what is needed for the moment. Here is a passage from the story.
"Almost," I say. I think some more, then ask, "Papa, how do fish know where they're going?"
"Can they see underwater?" says Cyril.
"Do they have good eyes?" adds Mary.
"Peekaboo!" squeals the baby.
"Woof!" barks Rex.
"I'm so glad I brought along these oars," says Mama. She rows toward shore.
But Papa is too deep in thought to notice.
When I recently meet Candace Fleming at the American Library Association Exhibit Hall, I remembered her mentioning, when we were speaking, why this family was similar to her own. In further conversations she states she became intrigued with Lodner Phillips's story when conducting research in her home town of Michigan City, Indiana, where he also lived. The characters in this story are based upon her sisters, brother, father, mother and herself. I love being able to share these connections and interesting details of the writing process with our readers, making authors and illustrators more than names on the page. Many thanks to Candace Fleming for sharing this with me.
Before you even open the cover, the matching jacket unfolded demonstrates the distinctive style of illustrator, Boris Kulikov, his cutaway pictures, wide-open expressive eyes and details adhering to the title's theme. His cutaway on the cover, several others within the story, the blueprints of Papa's vessels and showing readers the above water and below water scenes make readers feel as though they are participants in this family's adventures. On the back jacket and cover Kulikov pictures a close-up of a seagull perched on pilings, the ISBN hanging from one by a nail, the blueprints grasped in the seagull's bill. On the title page the two "o"s in Books are bolts.
When characters are talking many times they are looking out the page at the reader, especially the bulldog, Rex. There is so much life in his illustrations, constant movement and expression enhancing the humor found in the story. His altering of size and perspective keep pace with the narrative; two page spreads move to single pages or three or four panels stretched across two pages. Sometimes we are looking at a visual straight on, from the bottom up, the dog's eye view or from above. His full color illustrations, bright but more earth tone shades, are rich and in keeping with the time period in which the story is set. One of my favorite pictures is of Papa's hanging on the dock after swimming there with Virena kneeling and leaning over to him as a close-up of Rex looks out at the reader. There are so many moments where laughter will be unavoidable.
With every reading I find myself liking the combination of Candace Fleming's writing with Boris Kulikov's paintings in Papa's Mechanical Fish more and more. The author's note at the conclusion titled It's Almost True gives more information about Lodner Phillips followed by a list of sources on the final page. I'm giving serious thought to placing this book in my Mock Caldecott unit.
Be sure to follow the links embedded above to the author's and illustrator's websites. This link gives readers a view of eight more pictures at the publisher website.