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Chris Raschka,1998.
See permission.
The Bulletin
of the Center for Children's Books

The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

Arlene Sardine written and illus. by Chris Raschka. Orchard, 1998. 32p
Library ed. ISBN 0-531-33111-3  $16.99   Trade Ed. ISBN 0-531-20111-7  $15.95 Gr. 3-6

From Brer Rabbit to Peter Rabbit, from folklore critter to literary creature, children have consistently identified with any animal as small and helpless as they are. Their expectation is that the vulnerable underling will win his/her way and survive as hero, reassuring them of a similar prospect, and that's usually the way it goes. Take Leo Lionni's Swimmy, for instance. When his tiny, bright red companions are wiped out by a hungry tuna, "only Swimmy escaped," but he manages to brave the lonely, sad, and dangerous sea to form a new and stronger society of which he is the eye. This is Joseph Campbell's hero with a thousand faces, the isolated youth who undertakes a journey and comes back to society with new knowledge and new status. Thi s is the little adventurer with whom small children traditionally identify. With Chris Raschka's Arlene Sardine, which at first glance seems to be a successor to Swimmy, kids are in for a big surprise.

The invitation to identify is clear. "So you want to be a sardine," reads the first sentence. "I knew a little fish once who wanted to be a sardine." Here we are introduced to Arlene, born in a fjord, happy as a brisling swimming with ten hundred th ousand friends, caught in a purse net at age two, held there for three days till her stomach is empty, lifted out of the water, and emptied onto the deck of a boat. Now comes the catch, if you'll pardon the pun: "Here, on the deck of the fishing boat, A rlene died." Of course, listeners are quickly reassured: "However, Arlene's story is not over, because she was put on ice, in a box, with her friends." At the factory she is sorted by grading machines, given a short salty bath, delicately smoked ("I'll bet Arlene felt well rested on the conveyer belt"), packed into a little can ("I wonder if Arlene was a little nervous for the final inspection"), covered with olive oil, hermetically sealed, and cooked in her can. Finally, Arlene gets her wish-to be a sardine. So if you want to be a sardine, you know, now, how to satisfy that ambition.

The paintings-watercolor, naturally-are as rhythmic as the text, wriggling with multiple curved shapes and hues of blue, green, red, black, and yellow in a kind of graphically rhyming pattern. The hand-lettered text satirizes informational styles of p resentation. Some emphatic segments appear in blocks of color, for instance, or perhaps just the opening word and a half may be overlaid with pink, or a technical term may appear in enlarged print. The compositions seem infinitely varied without becomin g fragmented or breaking the flow from page to page. The style is even somewhat reminiscent of Lionni's collage effects.

And this is no more anthropomorphic than Swimmy. After all, a fantasy is a fantasy, and at least Arlene has an afterlife. Somehow, though, it isn't quite the Valhalla we've come to expect for slain heroes. It's more like pickling your pet. Has Raschka underestimated the emotional involvement of his audience, or have we who work with children overestimated it? Who is this book for? And does that question matter if children's literature has become a true art form whose validity depends not on popular appeal but on intrinsic aesthetic merit? Is this a book that's viable for that rarely used Bulletin category, the Special Reader? Is it Charlie the Tuna in a different can? Or is it simply a failure of marriage between form and con tent, a divorce of art from audience?

A number of Raschka's other books raise the same question. They are brilliant in artistic conception and minimalist text, but they fall clearly into dual categories. Three of them-Yo! Yes?, Can't Sleep, and The Blushful Hippopo tamus-are acutely attuned to young children's sensibilities and experience. Four-Charlie Parker Plays Bebop, Elizabeth Imagined an Iceberg, Mysterious Thelonius, and Simple Gifts-are impressive conceptually but wi ll puzzle many picture book audiences. Arlene Sardine is in a category all by itself. It could be a take-off on sentimental anthropomorphism in children's literature. It could be a send-up of best-sellers such as The Rainbow Fish. It could be lesson on moral cannibalism. It could be The Chocolate War for four-year-olds. It could be a defiance of audience definitions and constrictions. Or it could be Chris Raschka following his nose as far as it goes.

Will the shock effect of a dead hero do any damage to unsuspecting children? One librarian did suggest that this is a vegetarian book in a big way: "If I'd read this as a child, I probably would have cried every time I passed the fish section in the supermarket." But that sentiment reflects the three-to-five-year-old mentality for which the book seems to be formatted. Eight-to-ten-year-olds may find the book funny, for better or for worse, in the same way Scieszka and Smith's The True Story of the Three Little Pigs Told by A. Wolf is funny, though the style of art in Arlene Sardine is seductively and deceptively more innocent.

One thing for sure, Raschka's work always surprises, challenges, and intrigues us one way or another. In wake of the conventional cliches that too often plague literature of all kinds, including children's, it's refreshing to have a visual storyteller trying innovative things. The words "interesting" and "postmodern" come to mind; if both adjectives hadn't become such hopeless cliches themselves, it would be tempting to apply them to this ingenious creator of picture books who at best matches his own fresh energy with that of his audience.

Betsy Hearne, Consulting Editor

Big Picture Image
September's Bulletin cover illustration
by Chris Raschka from
Arlene Sardine,
Copyright 1998. Used by
permission of Orchard Books

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This page was last updated on September 1, 1998.