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Saturday, July 20, 2013

Papa's Mechanical Fish, written by Candace Fleming and illustrated by Boris Kulikov. Margaret Ferguson Books, Farrar Straus Giroux. Raincoast, 2013. $18.99 ages 5 and up

"Papa's mechanical fish is so small he barely fits inside. It has a tube sticking out the top so he can breathe. It has a pole sticking out the bottom so he can push himself along the lake floor. "I call it the Whitefish," he says. But will it work? We keep our fingers crossed. "Goodbye, Papa." We wave."

As you will know if you have read this blog before, I love to share picture book biographies with teachers and with students. They are a perfect way to make us aware of people who have made interesting and often significant contributions to the world in a variety of areas.

This is a fictionalized story which has its basis in truth. It is told by young Virena, daughter of inventor Lodner Phillips. Her papa is a inquisitive man who longs to create something of significance. Although he has never been successful, he doesn't give up. I think that is a lesson in, and of, itself. One day, feeling frustrated with his failures, and without the one single incredible idea needed, he suggests that the family go fishing.

Virena is an equally inquisitive girl, a gift she has obviously inherited from her father. It is a question raised while the family is fishing that sets him on a new quest:

"Papa," I say as we wait for a bite, "have you ever wondered what it's like to be a fish?"
"A fish?" he mutters. "A fish?"
"Uh-oh," squeals the baby.
Papa's pole clatters to the pier. He leaps to his feet. He whirls me around. "Virena, you're brilliant, he whoops. Then he is gone, racing back over the sand dunes to his workshop."

It is the beginning of a series of encounters between father and daughter that eventually ends with Lodner developing one of the world's first submarines. I love that Virena shows an aptitude for questioning the workings of the world in the way that most inventors do. Her questions are thoughtful and forward-thinking, encouraging her father to continue his work despite the many setbacks. A supportive family allows Lodner to keep trying to get it right. When he eventually creates a 'mechanical fish' that works, he is delighted and so are they all.

Boris Kulikov does such a wonderful job of creating widely varying perspectives for this inventive tale. The many realistic details enhance the telling and offer young readers a playful look at the hard work it took to bring an 'incredible idea' to fruition. He uses horizontal panels to show action, close-ups of the fish that do not want to be caught but want to see what is going on, bird's eye view and cross-sections; all will encourage appreciation and discussion. Don't miss the family's French bulldog, and the part he plays in adding to the humor.

An afterword and a source list add to the appeal. 

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