Here it is, the week between Christmas and New Year’s. A rather quiet time – so it’s the perfect moment to discuss a distinctly UNquiet picture book. Snoozy and understated this book ain’t. Papa’s Mechanical Fish tells the story of eccentric (and unheralded) inventor Lodner Phillips, who builds a working submarine in the summer of 1851. The narrator is one of his young daughters:
“Hear that? / Clink! Clankety-bang! Thump-whirrr! / That’s the sound of Papa at work. / Clink! Clankety-bang! Thump-whirrrr!”
Boris Kulikov’s pictures match the intensity and energy of Candace Fleming’s text. It’s a rare spread that does not include a character looking out at the reader from the book, almost mugging for the camera; or an unusual perspective – bird’s-eye views, fish-eye views, family dog – eye views; or split screens that, often comically, advance the action; or fantastical and impossibly huge fish lurking beneath the surface of Lake Michigan. The colors telegraph both the warm, loving family relationships (every member, including the dog, is involved in Papa’s project) and the cool underwater world into which Papa launches his ever-improving vessels. (And as someone familiar with the colors of Lake Michigan, above and below the surface, I can assure you that Kulikov got them just right.)
The pictures and the text both work very hard to make this a book for children. A challenge, since this isn’t really a picture book biography, and since this isn’t really about the inventor of the submarine (Phillips instead made improvements to an existing design), and since some of those improvements are pretty sophisticated concepts. But I think they succeed. A plethora of dialogue and sound effects keep the text child-centered, and the pictures pull out all the stops to grab readers’ attention and keep them involved and entertained.
Can this book propel itself onto the Caldecott table? Will it finally earn inventor Lodner Phillips fame (if not fortune)? We’ll find out in – swoosh! – less than a month.