The Fab­u­lous Tale of Fish & Chips

Helaine Beck­er, Omer Hoff­mann (Illus­tra­tor)

  • Review
By – November 29, 2021

You may think of fish and chips as a quin­tes­sen­tial­ly British meal, with an ori­gin almost as remote as Stone­henge. In fact, this com­bi­na­tion dish was actu­al­ly intro­duced to Eng­land in the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry by a Sephardic immi­grant named Joseph Malin. In The Fab­u­lous Tale of Fish & Chips, Helaine Beck­er and Omer Hoff­mann tell his sto­ry as a clas­sic exam­ple of per­sis­tence and imag­i­na­tion, as well as a reminder of the con­tri­bu­tions of immi­grants to their adopt­ed homes. Becker’s text is atten­tive to the details that will appeal to young read­ers, and Hoffmann’s gen­tly com­ic and his­tor­i­cal­ly accu­rate images give the book a delight­ful flavor.

Joseph works in his family’s shop. For­tu­nate­ly, both for his cus­tomers and for today’s read­ers, he loves every­thing about fish, from buy­ing it fresh in the mar­ket, to prepar­ing it accord­ing to his grandmother’s recipe. Hoffmann’s draw­ing in sequence of the fam­i­ly matri­arch cut­ting, coat­ing, and fry­ing the fish con­veys the Malins’ ded­i­ca­tion to their craft. Yet chil­dren will under­stand the dif­fer­ence between a person’s voca­tion and his abil­i­ty to earn a liv­ing through it when Beck­er informs them that Eat­ing fish was one thing. That was easy. But sell­ing it was hard.” Final­ly, in the midst of their household’s fre­net­ic activ­i­ty, Joseph con­ceives of an idea. Gold­en lines rep­re­sent the aro­ma of fried fish sur­round­ing him, while tiny dark spots of men­tal activ­i­ty arise from his curly black hair. Their fam­i­ly will sell, not only fresh fish, but cooked plates of the new delicacy.

Con­flict appears in the sto­ry when anoth­er young entre­pre­neur, Annette, resents his suc­cess, and decides that her grandmother’s recipe for fried pota­toes has the same poten­tial to attract cus­tomers. Annette has beau­ti­ful red hair and a look of deter­mi­na­tion on her face. When the two rivals lit­er­al­ly crash into one anoth­er in the mar­ket, Hoff­mann turns the car­toon-like event of near-dis­as­ter into a for­tu­nate acci­dent. There is an under­tone of eth­nic com­pe­ti­tion, along with a ques­tion­ing of gen­der roles. In her author’s note, Beck­er explains that French and Bel­gian women may have brought fried pota­toes to London’s East End as ear­ly as the sev­en­teenth cen­tu­ry. The same neigh­bor­hood even­tu­al­ly became a Jew­ish enclave. Cer­tain­ly, the mes­sage of peace­ful coex­is­tence is part of Joseph and Annette’s deci­sion to work togeth­er as they hawk their wares loud­ly, and in per­fect harmony.”

The inter­ac­tion of words and pic­tures in this book is as har­mo­nious as Joseph and Annette’s team­work. Brief nar­ra­tion, glimpses into each character’s thoughts, and poet­ic phras­es advance the plot. The book’s design takes full advan­tage of both col­or and blank space between images and texts, almost giv­ing the sense of a graph­ic nov­el. Annette stands with one hand on her hip, the oth­er casu­al­ly toss­ing a pota­to in the air, as she imag­ines pos­si­bil­i­ties: If Joseph can sell fried fish, why can’t I sell fried pota­toes?” Soon she is hard at work, stir­ring a pot with so much ener­gy that some of the pota­toes fly into the air. Final­ly, she walks off the page with her tray of goods, fol­lowed by a goose who has trou­ble keep­ing up with her. Hoff­mann uses humor to appeal to his read­ers, but always in an under­stat­ed way.

There are ele­ments that appeal to every­one here: fam­i­ly togeth­er­ness, immi­grant inge­nu­ity, friend­ship, and deli­cious food. Joseph Malin’s fried fish and pota­toes, won­der­ful served hot and just as good eat­en cold on Shab­bat, final­ly have their ori­gin sto­ry in this won­der­ful pic­ture book.

In addi­tion to the author’s note, her recipe for fried fish is included.

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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