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Wednesday, 2 March 2011

The Little Red Fish: Whisper, whisper

The Little Red Fish by Taeeun Yoo.
Dial Books for Young Readers, Penguin, 2007.

Click on the cover to listen to the way we read The Little Red Fish. 

The Little Red Fish is a wonderfully quiet, mesmerising book, perfect for whispering out loud. Perhaps the fact that it takes place in a library, but mainly something about the dark but warm etching and hand colour illustrations, seem to make you lower your voice unconsciously when reading it out loud.

The Story
For the first time in his life, little JeJe is allowed to go to the library in the middle of the forest with his grandfather, the librarian. JeJe takes along his little red fish in its bowl to share the experience.

Amazed and excited by all those rooms lined with books, JeJe starts to explore the library from one corner to another, peeking into each room before entering. Soon he gets tired and falls asleep, to wake up in a dark and quiet room, feeling 'as though he had been swallowed up by the darkness'.

Scared and lonely, he starts reading a book to his little red fish by the light of the moon. But when he looks up, the fish bowl is empty! In his search for his little red fish, full of mystery and fear of the dark, JeJe keeps catching glimpses of its tail disappearing out of sight until he finally sees the fish disappearing into a book. JeJe picks it up and opens it and, whoosh!, the magic starts:

A sea of red fish, all the same as his, floods the library, Jeje reaches down and falls down, down into the book, where he flies over the sea with a flock of flamingos, firmly holding on to the leg of one of them, and continues to fly and drift over dreamy textless scenes before diving into the sea, rescuing his red friend and coming out of the book, safe and dry.

About to go back home, JeJe whispers to his fish that they'll be back very, very soon.  

The Illustrations
The Little Red Fish by Taeeun Yoo was the author's graduate thesis for her master's degree at the School of Visual Arts. It combines that contagious joy, ambition and excitement of first works with extraordinarily accomplished talent and natural skill at telling a story through illustrations. It is a book that would work even without the text.

I like the fact that apart from the illustrations of the actual story, the illustrations on the endpapers are also significant. The endpapers at the front and at the back are identical -an illustration of shelves full of books and interesting bits and bobs like a clock with no hands, a stuffed owl, a vase- except for the one book that is red in the back endpaper but not in the front one.

I also like the warmth provided by the red, the only actual colour used in the entire book, and the shadows of the little fish in some of the illustrations.

Another interesting thing about the illustrations, as shown in the first image below, is the use of multiple representation in a single scene, cleverly providing a sense of movement. Wonderful. 

Here are a few wonderful illustrations from The Little Red Fish (there are not that many available online, so some of our favourite ones -JeJe and his grandfather riding to the library on a bicycle with the fish bowl on the rear seat and the library in the distance along the path, for instance- are missing):

Here is JeJe exploring the library with his grandfather in the room at the back and the little fish in his bowl by his side:

Whoosh! The red fish flooding the library:

Flying with flamingos:

Back endpaper, with a rather alive looking stuffed owl, the vase, the handless clock, the ladder leaning against the shelves, and the lamp lighting up the red book:

Reading it out loud
The fact that the story and illustrations are whisper-inducing make it an excellent bedtime or quietening down story. I even sometimes whisper the story in my son's ear which he loves and finds rather amusing.

But amidst all the whispering there is also the big 'Wow!' when the fish pour out of the book and the 'Here! Here!' every time a disappearing tail is spotted.

My son always points to a particular fish in the flood scene, absolutely persuaded that it is JeJe's. 'Not this one?', we ask, pointing to any other. 'No', he'll say, with a self-assurance that suggests he sees something the rest of us miss, 'this one'.

I often read in a couple more 'downs' when he falls into the book and another 'very' at the end: 'very very soon'.

For the pages without text, I sometimes narrate what's happening, but other times just let my son look at whatever he fancies.(In the recording, because it sounded a bit odd to remain silent, I've included the kind of thing I say when I'm reading it, although this changes each time I read it):

Bits and bobs: 
This is the first book I bought for my son, so it is rather special for us. I must have been about 12 weeks pregnant and I bought it at Boston Airport on my way back from my brother's wedding. I'm so glad I did!

About a year ago, I discovered that the author, Taeeun Yoo, has a shop where she sells some of her illustrations and prints: http://www.etsy.com/shop/yoote.

Browsing through her prints, I saw she had a couple of illustrations that were part of her study piece for The Little Red Fish. So we now have on our son's bedroom wall this great illustration that was never included in the final book:

Rather special indeed, if you ask me!

(C) Copyright of all illustrations in this post, Taeeun Yoo, 2007


  1. I absolutely love her etchings. They are almost old-fashioned in their quality, the kind of thing you feel nostalgic for. In a way, they already look like classics, don't you think?

  2. Absolutely! And I'm positive that my son will always remember them. They are the kind of thing that really stays with you :)

  3. What a perfect reading of this~ So mysterious and enchanting.