Papa’s Mechanical Fish by Candace Fleming, illustrations by Boris Kulikov
Based on a true story, this picture book reads more like a far-fetched fantasy. Papa is an inventor but has never made anything that works. All he needs is one incredible idea, but they don’t come easily. So the family takes a trip to the lake where one of the children, the narrator of the book, asks what it is like to be a fish. That gives Papa the incredible idea he was looking for. The first version of his mechanical fish is so small that Papa himself can barely fit into it. It almost works. The second version is bigger and has a fin and a propeller and seats two people. It almost works. Whitefish III is even bigger, seats three, and is covered in copper. It almost works too. The fourth version is huge, fits the entire family, and… Well, you just have to read the story to see how it ends.
The whimsy of these inventions is a large part of what makes this book so successful. From the slow progress of the machines from one version to the next to the joy of seeing them tried out in the story, this is a book where you must find out what happens next. Fleming has also written a charming story of a family that supports the inventor. There is a rhythm to the story that makes it a pleasure, each attempt and failure met with similar satisfying responses from his family. This makes the book work for a larger age range and makes reading it all the more fun.
Kulikov’s illustrations are a mix of realistic illustrations, huge fish that float past as inspiration in the water, and blueprints that let you glimpse the inside of each version of the submarine. The entire book has a wonderful frantic quality to it, engaging the reader right in the moment of Aha! and then through the different trials.
A treat of a book, this book will be inspiring to young engineers and inventors. Appropriate for ages 5-8.
Reviewed from library copy.
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer, illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon
This picture book version of the nonfiction book manages to translate the story of William Kamkwamba with clarity and inspiration. When a drought hit his village in Malawi in 2001 and 2002, 14-year-old William and his family were in real danger of starving. William had always through about machines and even after he was forced to leave school due to the drought, he kept reading books about them. He thought about what could be done with a windmill in his village, bringing light and water. So he hunted through the junk yard and found pieces to use. Built entirely out of scraps, his first windmill and its electric wind brought electricity to the valley. The afterword gives more details about William’s story and how it took him longer years to bring his dream of pumping water to fruition. This inspirational story speaks to the inventor, the doer, and the dreamer in all of us.
The writing here is lovely. The imagery is impressive, such as comparing the windmill to a “clumsy giraffe” and giving William’s sorrow at having to leave school a physical sense: “alone with the monster in his belly and the lump in his throat.” The book carefully captures what life in Malawi was like and what little could be done to make a difference before transforming into a book where dreams create change.
Zunon’s illustrations are exquisite. They are a captivating mix of painting and collage. Filled with texture, the textiles of the clothing come to life and the objects have weight and feel. The most impressive are the faces of the people, filled with light. The faces become the place your eyes go first, making the message of the book just that much stronger in a subtle but powerful way.
A luminous picture book version of a compelling real-life story, this book should inspire others to not only dream but to make those dreams happen. Appropriate for ages 7-10.
Reviewed from copy received from Dial Books for Young Readers.