Big Dreams, Small Fish

  • Review
By – March 10, 2022

While it is easy to feel nos­tal­gic about gefilte fish, cre­at­ing a children’s pic­ture book about this tra­di­tion­al Jew­ish food is a chal­lenge. Writer and illus­tra­tor Paula Cohen suc­ceeds in this beau­ti­ful­ly illus­trat­ed sto­ry about an enter­pris­ing lit­tle girl who deter­mines to save her family’s shop by pro­mot­ing this dish to non-Jew­ish cus­tomers. Cohen deft­ly avoids a preachy tone, while con­vey­ing how peo­ple of dif­fer­ent back­grounds are both alike and dif­fer­ent. She also sends the mes­sage to young read­ers that they can make a dif­fer­ence, even when adults are skep­ti­cal of a child’s abil­i­ty to change the course of events.

Big Dreams, Small Fish is set in the 1930s or 40s, Cohen imbues her char­ac­ters and set­ting with the Yid­dishkeit of that era. Shirley’s fam­i­ly has just moved to a new neigh­bor­hood, and they are aware of the need to mar­ket their spe­cial­ties to cus­tomers who may nev­er have tast­ed them. Del­i­cate draw­ings in pas­tel and earth tones por­tray the extend­ed clan work­ing hard to sell their wares. Uncle Mor­ris care­ful­ly stacks cans, while Mama tastes the soup with a look of con­cern on her face. Papa holds a hand let­tered sign adver­tis­ing gefilte fish in both Eng­lish and Yid­dish, one of the many authen­tic details in the text. A mixed-media image on the wall shows a fam­i­ly pho­to­graph in a frame drawn by Cohen, allud­ing to the his­to­ry in which the book is based. Jews main­tained their own cus­toms, but also tried to assim­i­late into Amer­i­can life.

Shirley is one smart child, a real asset to her striv­ing fam­i­ly. She is full of inno­v­a­tive ideas, which are depict­ed by Cohen with both humor and respect. A cook­ing robot and a con­vey­er belt to move food might all pro­mote the store’s suc­cess, but the busi­ness con­fronts a real prob­lem intrin­sic to Amer­i­can immi­grant life. While oth­er foods are pop­u­lar, no one will touch the strange fish that is a sta­ple of Ashke­nazi cui­sine. Chil­dren will relate to the prob­lem of invis­i­bil­i­ty; Shirley’s clever sug­ges­tions only make her moth­er farmisht,” and lead her father to gen­tly remind her, in Yid­dish-inflect­ed Eng­lish, that We didn’t come to this coun­try for you to solve prob­lems. Go play nice with the cat.”

A com­bi­na­tion of con­fi­dence and will­ing­ness to take risks leads to Shirley’s suc­cess. But Cohen also implies that her heroine’s fond­ness for gefilte fish – that Jew­ish clas­sic – helps her as well. Why would Miss Han, Mr. Lom­bar­do, and Mrs. Her­nan­dez, not become gefilte-enthu­si­asts, once they are per­suad­ed to try it? Both the text and the illus­tra­tions are under­stat­ed but clear: peo­ple of dif­fer­ent races and eth­nic back­grounds share more in com­mon than they may real­ize. And a child stand­ing on a stool to reach the cash reg­is­ter and plac­ing a sur­prise in each customer’s bag is just the per­son to prove this point. Help­ing her fam­i­ly, prov­ing her own worth, and reach­ing out to the wider world all con­verge in Shirley’s plan. All of those moti­va­tions are deeply-held Jew­ish val­ues, unob­tru­sive­ly pre­sent­ed in Cohen’s delight­ful book.

This high­ly rec­om­mend­ed pic­ture book­in­cludes a glos­sary, an expla­na­tion of gefilte fish, and a recipe from the icon­ic New York restau­rant Russ & Daughters.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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