By Taeeun Yoo; illus. by author
3-4 Preschool Dial 32 pp.
978-0-8037-3145-5 Hardcover $15.99
"JeJe's grandfather was a librarian at an old library in the middle of the forest."
An old library in the middle of the forest.... From the moment one reads those words, one understands that one is entering a subtle, magical place. But even before the story begins, the reader is primed for something special. While covers are, quite famously, nothing to judge a book by, the red cloth binding and illustrated inset on the cover of The Little Red Fish makes a beautiful package, one that is added to by the endpaper and title page illustrations. These show, respectively, in shadowy pen and ink, the shelves of the mysterious library and the image of a grandfather and grandson pedaling through a curving wood toward a solid, square building that looks like nothing so much as an English boarding school. Strapped to the back of their bike, on top of a stack of books, is a small red fish with sweet wide eyes, floating happily in its bowl. It's an image that at first seems reasonable, but that hints gently at the surrealism of the story that's about to unfold.
The muted red of JeJe's fish stands out from the sepia-toned watercolor background without jarring the eye, as if to imply that the fish belongs in the library in the middle of the forest, which is much larger than it's exterior would imply. While JeJe's grandfather works, JeJe and the fish explore. Soon, JeJe grows tired and falls asleep in a darkened room. When he wakes, it is night. He feels swallowed by darkness (a statement Yoo underscores by illustrating JeJe and his fish sitting in a shadow shaped like a whale). Then, JeJe notices that his fish is gone. As JeJe searches for his fish in the stacks, young readers are invited to look for it too, catching glimpses of a red tail floating in the shadows, until one's eye is caught by a book the same color as the fish. JeJe opens the book, unleashing a flood of red fish in a double page spread. What follows is a nearly wordless chase over 16 pages as JeJe tries to recapture his friend, ultimately succeeding (the fish manages to look bewildered and relieved) just as his grandfather finishes says it's time to go home.
Yoo's prose is straightforward and clear, providing a spare, well-balanced narrative on which to hang her beautiful, emotive illustrations. The illustrations, while evoking traditional Chinese art, (especially in the etched figures of JeJe, his grandfather, and the red fish), are timeless and oddly universal, inviting children of all cultures to join JeJe on his unexpected adventure. While The Little Red Fish, with its delicate illustrations and quiet story, is best suited to one-on-one sharing, it is a book that preschoolers will enjoy having read to them more than once. With so many images and so much room for the child-reader's imagination, parents aren't likely to mind given the book's aesthetic appeal, an appeal that is a stand-out for children's material.