My Favorite Books Part 2

September 15, 2013


Here is Part Two of my series called “My Favorite Books”. I hope you get to find some of these books, which are very special to me, and see if you like them, too!


Fish is Fish

by Leo Lionni

Knopf, 1970

Leo Lionni is one of my favorite authors and illustrators.  He was born in the Netherlands, spent some time in Italy as a fine artist, then moved to the United States and became a designer and art director for magazines. In his fifties, he moved back to Italy and began making children’s books. During his life he won four Caldecott medals for his work, as well as many other prizes.

Lionni was well known for his lovely artwork, which was mostly done in a technique called collage. This involves gluing together pieces of paper or pictures from magazines to make an image. The book I am going to talk about, however, looks to me like it was drawn with crayon or pastels.  There are a lot of little scratchy-scratchy colored lines that makeup the pictures, and sometimes it looks to my eye like he lay his paper on some rough surface, and then rubbed his crayons back and forth to get a nice texture in the colored areas.

Lionni always worked from his imagination, not from real life, and his pictures are usually very simple and child-like.  The compositions are very decorative, by which I mean that the colors and shapes are very pleasantly arranged. This book is also kind of big, for a picture book, and I always like big books because it is easier to get lost in the pictures.

The story of “Fish is Fish” involves two friends. At first these friends appear to be little fish, and they enjoy their underwater world together. But then one friend begins to grow legs, and discovers he is a tadpole, on his way to becoming a frog. The friends start to argue when they realize they are not the same as they thought they were. One of them is changing, and change is hard between friends.  When the frog leaves the water to explore the land, the fish is a little sad.

Soon, however, the frog returns with tales of all the amazing things he has seen on the land—birds, and cows and people.  Poor fish has a hard time imagining what these creatures look like; he thinks they must all look like fish, but with clothes and wings and udders! He longs to see the world frog has seen, so one day he leaps out of the water and lands helplessly on the bank. There he lies, gasping for breath, because fish cannot live out of water like frogs can.         

Fortunately Frog happens to come along, and he helps his friend back into the water. The fish is happy to be back where he belongs, because his, he realizes, is surely the most beautiful world of all.

This is an interesting story, and it seems to have a moral. I suppose the book is telling us that we should be happy with who we are, and where we live, and not try too hard to be something we are not. After all, Fish nearly got killed trying to be like Frog. I am not absolutely sure about this, because morals are usually not stated outright; it is up to us to figure them out. But if this is the intended moral, I am not sure I agree with it completely.

These days we like to think that we can be anything we want to be, go anywhere we want to go, and do anything we want to do. We do not like being told to stay in our place. This book seems to be saying that it is important for us to know our limitations; if we are a fish, we should stay in the water and appreciate what we’ve got. On the other hand, maybe the author is simply telling us that we should not take things for granted, because our lives are pretty good.

What do you think?  What is the book trying to teach us?  The thing I really appreciate about “Fish is Fish”, like many of Leo Lionni’s works, is that it makes us think, and give us things to talk about. Oh, and the artwork is really lovely, too.


This is a picture that shows you what the fish imagines, when frog is telling him about birds. He thinks all living creatures must look a little like a fish! It just shows you how words don’t always translate into what our imaginations can see.

I think it is interesting that the book is mostly drawn in crayon, or pastel, but there seems to be some other technique happening in the drawing of the bird.  I think Lionni probably used a sharp tool to scratch out the white lines, and he may have used some paint to create the bird.  But I don’t know for sure!  It’s just interesting that he decided to do the “pretend” animals using slightly different art materials.


Rotten Island

by William Steig

published by David R. Godine


Here’s a book I could read over and over and over, because it is about monsters, and I have always had a soft spot in my heart for monsters. This book was originally published in 1969 and called “The Bad Island”.  In 1984 it was republished with the title “Rotten Island”! I guess everyone noticed that the island in the book is far worse than bad…in fact, it is far worse than rotten!

In the late 1960’s when this book was created, there was a lot of social unrest in the world, with fighting, wars, protests and misunderstanding everywhere. Some people, whom society called hippies, chose flowers as the symbol of the peace they longed for. I think these competing forces must have inspired William Steig to come up with his story.

It is about an island where a bunch of terrible, ugly, mean-spirited monsters live.  Every day they argue, fight and gobble each other up while screaming, tearing and breaking things. The language of this book is really colorful, with many great adjectives describing how horrible everything is. Here are a few—scraggly, slimy, clacking, goggle-eyed, petrified, slithering, hideous, broiling, sizzling, raving, snorting and clawing. And these are just in the first half of the book! There are many other interesting and unusual words. Do you know what “caterwauling” is? Have you ever heard of the word “abominated”? I hadn’t, until I read this book.

In the story, the monsters of Rotten Island spend a lot of time being awful and horrid toward one another, until one day a lovely flower mysteriously appears on the island. The monsters are very upset by this, and they try to kill the flower, but they cannot. In fact, the flowers start to spread, and the monsters are so angry and fearful that before long, they are overwhelmed by their own horribleness, and completely destroy themselves.  All that is left is an island covered with smoke and ashes. When the fires die down, a rain falls, and the flowers take over the island. Beautiful things start to grow there, and some birds arrive to make a new home. The monsters are all gone.

I used to read this book to my kids when they were little.  My boys thought the book was good, but a little scary. The pictures are full of really awful looking things. The monsters are enough to give anyone nightmares. When the book, “Where the Wild Things Are” came out, I remember feeling that the monsters weren’t scary enough. In fact, they were a little cute! But the monsters in “Rotten Island” are terrifying. Some of the scenes in the book are a riot of clashing colors and spattered ink. They are ugly and brash, like the characters in the story. But they are very powerful, too.

At the end, when a rainbow comes out over the lovely flowers that now grow on the island, it is an amazing change from the skeleton-strewn wasteland on the previous page. I think the author was trying to say that if we humans don’t learn to be nice to one another, our future isn’t very bright. I think he is right about that!


Here’s a picture to show you how something can be ugly and pretty at the same time!  The monster in front is ugly, but because his colors are close in value to the background, he doesn’t stand out too much. And that makes him look less scary! Overall the colors in the picture are both pretty and intense, and the fire coming out of the volcanoes is beautifully and delicately drawn. 

I like the stars, too, glowing in that greenish-blue sky. Now if I had done this painting, I probably would have made the background black, and put more contrast in the monsters and the rocky, spiky landscape, and that would have been too scary. But because Steig painted all the colors with approximately the same value, not too light or dark, and the colors are really jewel-like, it doesn’t look too scary at all. In fact, to me, it looks pretty!


Who Will Comfort Toffle?

Tove Jansson

Henry Z. Walk, 1960

I have always loved the books made by artist and writer Tove Jansson, who lived in Finland.  Though most of her books are novels, they still have lovely little line art illustrations in them, and I find them all very charming and clever.  Of course, not everyone appreciates them as much as I do.  The books are over fifty years old, now, and they probably seem a bit peculiar to our modern American eyes and ears. At any rate, when I discovered there were a couple of old Tove Jansson picture books I’d never seen before, I got very excited!

The book I wanted to share with you is called “Who Will Comfort Toffle?” As I said, this is kind of an old book, written by an odd woman from a culture very different than our own.  So it might seem strange to you. The story was written in Finnish, and in rhyme, then translated into English.  I imagine that must be VERY hard to do!  I wonder how the story would have sounded in Finnish, because it’s a little long and stiff in the translation.  Today’s picture books have far less text than this one, and I suspect most modern American kids would not have the patience to read such a long book.  I didn’t mind, though.

I think one of the most interesting things about Tove Jansson is how she imagines the world in which her characters live.  Now when I write a book, I make up the character and write the story, and I don’t give too much thought to the world that character lives in—even if it is a talking pig, or rabbit or mouse.  But Jansson, I think, probably didn’t start with a single character or a single story in mind.  I think she must have started by making up an entire world in her imagination, full of unusual and interesting characters.

She thought about which characters knew each other and which were strangers, which characters were friends, and which were enemies.  She thought about what that world looked like, its oceans and mountains, its villages and customs. Then she picked out certain characters and told stories about them. But all of the other characters from this big, weird world keep popping up in each other’s stories, even if they don’t have much of a reason to be there. I think that is kind of charming!

If you were to read all of Jansson’s books, you would meet many of these characters again and again. They include the Hemulens, Whompses, Fillyjonk, Moomins and Snufkin. Perhaps the weirdest character is the Groke.  Everybody is always afraid of the Groke, but I am not sure the Groke is bad…though its cry is frightening and it turns everything around it into ice. But once again, it does not play too big a part in this story. 

What the story is about, is a very shy little boy named Toffle.  He is lonely and sad, and everything scares him. He goes out into the world and it seems like everyone is having fun, but he is too shy to talk to anyone, and no one notices him.  Then one day he finds a bottle floating in the sea.  In the bottle is a message from a girl named Miffle, who is even more shy and more frightened than he is.

Toffle goes out of his way to find Miffle, and once he gets it in his mind that he must find her, he becomes much more brave and bold than he had been before. Of course, when they meet they become best friends, and they live happily ever after inside a big sea shell.

Now that probably sounds like a peculiar and silly story, and I suppose it is. But the drawings in this book are the thing that I find really delightful. The characters are very odd and fanciful, and the colors are quite bright and bold. I wouldn’t mind taking any one of the pictures from this book, framing it and hanging it on the wall. The pictures tell the story, of course, but each picture is also quite lovely as a work of art.

Jansson’s drawing style is as odd as her storytelling. Toffle is supposed to be a boy, but he doesn’t really look quite human. And the other characters often look like deer or bulls or opossums wearing funny hats and clothes.  I love this weird world that Tove Jansson creates, and it’s always a pleasure for me to go back and re-read one of her strange little stories.image

This is a scene from the beginning of the book, where poor Toffle is trying to sleep, but imagining all kinds of scary things going on outside his house in the night.  I love the colors, pink, yellow, green, two shades of blue, gray and black…unusual choices, but very pretty. I love the composition, by which I mean the way the colors are arranged in the design. The whole thing is kind of flat-looking, but in a good way, so the different parts of the picture make not only a scene, but a decorative pattern.


Here is another night-time scene, where there is a big party going on. Once again, I love the colors. They are bright without being primary colors; the green is a little olive, the blue is a little turquoise, and red are is a little orange. The black and white parts have that interesting texture that makes them look like they are glowing. Though a lot of the characters have outlines drawn around them, the outlines are often white, instead of black.  This gives them a very unique look!


In this picture you see Toffle staring up at the Groke, and Miffle is in the background. I love how the artwork is almost all black and white and gray, and then there is just a little yellow in it for accent. Most of the artwork in the book is very bright, so an image like this one is a real contrast to the other pages. The little white lines in the shadows also give the drawing a very unusual texture.





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