Ugly Fish and Pretty Great Story Times: A Valentine
(and a Bit of Dispatches From the Field)

h1 February 14th, 2007 by jules

First things first: The Cybil Awards are being announced today, so woo hoo! All eyes over at the Cybils site, please!

Secondly, here’s my valentine for today (having already bestowed some upon my family) . . . I have been waiting patiently for a good, long while now to get my hands on a library copy of Kara LaReau and Scott Magoon’s Ugly Fish (June 2006; Harcourt Children’s Books), ever since Jarrett J. Krosoczka recommended it on his blog (look, JJK won’t steer you wrong; he did, after all, introduce me — again, via his blog — to David Ezra Stein’s Cowboy Ned and Andy, which I reviewed here, is one of the Best Picture Books Ever You Can Give as a Birthday Gift to A Friend, and makes me tear up every time at the end — yes, every time, though I know what’s comin’).

Now, I don’t live in Nashville proper, but I drive quite a distance every Tuesday to attend the story times at the big, beautiful, main branch of the Nashville Public Library (with their slammin’ slogan, “a city with a great library is a great city” . . . to which I say, word) in downtown Nashville. The main library has a staff of three full-time performers — known collectively as Wishing Chair Productions, as I understand it — who also entertain with marionettes (read the wonderful history here). They put on an excellent story time.

Being a children’s librarian myself — but one who is taking a temporary break from it, therefore all the time watching other librarians do their thing with my children in tow — I simply can’t help but evaluate in my head (mostly in a kind manner, of course) just how well they do their thing. And can I just say — if you’re ever, ever in Nashville — that you really need to go see The Professor, Library Pete, and Mary Mary in downtown Nashville and let them entertain you? I get a bit jaded with the librarians who do things up a bit too cutesy at story time and practically kill themselves to get children to pay attention. And, here in the Nashville Public’s main library story time theater, we have three storytellers who simply talk to, sing to, and read to the children as if they’re on their level, which is how we should all talk to children at all times, no? (And, to boot, they’re wicked funny and often throw in a sly joke or two via the puppets’ mouths that get the mamas and papas chuckling). Granted, as far as I understand it, they are not librarians. But I’ve seen a lot of librarians whom I wish would take their storytelling cues — don’t talk down to the children.

And I had just about given up on ever procuring a library copy of Ugly Fish when, lo and behold, one of these entertaining story time folks this morning up and read it to us all. This is Library Pete I speak of (who, incidentally, so very entirely has the mannerisms and droll humor of Eisha’s husband — and looks like he could be his brother — that sometimes I swear it’s really him and Eisha’s gonna jump out and surprise me, too). What was so great about this book choice for Valentine’s week is that Library Pete’s amusing reading of it followed Mary Mary’s reading of the wearied Guess How Much I Love You, which got a big “awwwwwwwww!” from the crowd of mamas. But let me say that — no matter how you feel about such poignant and often verging-on-syrupy I-love-you-forever children’s books, which are often really written for the adults — Mary Mary made even that one entertaining (I’m tellin’ you, the woman also sings “They Were You” from The Fantasticks, harmonizing with The Professor — Brian Hull, who is the Director of the Nashville Public Library Marionette Theater, as I understand it — who is drawing a story book character as they sing. She shares that the first time she heard it, it made her think of her children. Does it sound like a bit much? Listen, they do it up just right, and — blast it! — when they sing it all unassumingly and beautifully with their simple harmonies, it always makes me tear up, me sitting there with My Girls in my lap).

So, here we have Ugly Fish, this decidedly un-cutesy story, following Guess How Much I Love You. How funny is that (again, rhetorical question. Just nod and say, “amen!”)? And since Mary Mary chose the latter just for Valentine’s Day, Library Pete chose a darker story — well, just ’cause, he roguishly hinted. But perhaps he intended a refreshing, welcome antidote from gushy stories on a day full of them. Nice touch.

. . . ‘Cause let me tell you, too, that Ugly Fish is a funny and vicious and honest and barefaced cautionary tale of justice (a subject with which children, of course, are terrifically familiar — Publishers Weekly’s review said, “{t}his cautionary tale shows that violence begets violence, but never suggests an alternative to the big-fish-eat-little-fish cycle.” I’m sorry, but children know all too well that life is simply unfair). The plot is this simple: Ugly Fish is mean, selfish, hugely huge, and not too hip on sharing space or kind words with the other creatures of the aquarium (I mean, just look at that cover, folks). He gulps down — without so much as a grimace for a hello — whichever new fish arrives in his space (after chasing them around, that is). Eventually, Ugly Fish wishes that he had someone to play with and wonders if perhaps he shouldn’t have been so ornery and offensive. Ah, but be careful what you wish for, eh? Shiny Fish arrives. He’s bigger, he’s very shark-esque. Ugly Fish attempts to get to know his new-found friend, showing him around the tank. Shiny Fish likes what he sees and decides he wants it all to himself. At the book’s close, he burps loudly after chasing and then swallowing Ugly Fish. The End.

Nice, healthy dose of shock value, eh?

Yes, this was after Guess How Much I Love You. Thank you, Library Pete. Again, Mary Mary made McBratney’s book great fun, but guess how much I love Library Pete for following it up with a book which is wretchedly funny (and one I have been waiting to read)? Thanks to Wishing Chair Productions for a restorative and rousing counterstep in the lovey-love dance of books that are requisite for Valentine’s week story times.

And, though this post is more of a valentine to a really kickin’ story time with good book choices, I will add — in the name of actually commenting evaluatively on this book — that Magoon’s pen-and-ink, digitally-colored cartoon illustrations are also wicked fun. “Edgy,” as the School Library Journal review put it well. This book — in the sense of both illustrations and text — is for Sendak, Gorey, and Dahl fans, as Kirkus Reviews astutely pointed out.

And that is my valentine for today. I want poor, conflicted Ugly Fish — and talented storytellers everywhere — to be mine. Happy Valentine’s Day. Go see which Cybils books won, and thank your favorite story time librarians for their hard work.

6 comments to “Ugly Fish and Pretty Great Story Times: A Valentine
(and a Bit of Dispatches From the Field)”

  1. Happy Valentine’s Day. Ugly Fish sounds awesome!

  2. Hope you had a Happy Cybils Day! Though this post made me think of sushi. I love sushi, so that’s cool.

    Thanks again for all your support and linky love to Cybils.

  3. […] * Rabbit & Squirrel: A Tale of War and Peas by Kara LaReau and illustrated by Scott Magoon (Harcourt; YES! Did you see the demented and wonderful Ugly Fish?); […]

  4. […] hours in each day?) — is Kara LaReau and Scott Magoon’s Ugly Fish, which I raved about here at 7-Imp over a year ago. Good things like Ugly Fish happen when LaReau and Magoon put their heads […]

  5. […] that he does things like reads Ugly Fish after someone else reads Guess How Much I Love You? (but I did post about it once). When I know Library Pete’s there and gonna read, my heart is happy and I know I’m in for a […]

  6. […] could be one of your week’s joys (and also since I’ve run my mouth about it before here — and even in the Slightly Demented Picture Books post Adrienne and I drafted earlier this […]

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