Advocating for the Under-Fish
January 12, 2023 § 1 Comment
Today, I’m highlighting another 2022 picture book that, had it released earlier, would have made my Gift Guide, because it’s that good. It also boasts one of the most genuine classroom settings I’ve seen in awhile, a story that not only speaks to a love of learning and the benefits of independent research projects, but honors the creative minds that go against the grain, that don’t conform to the traditional norms that the school day demands.
In other words, if you love Andrea Beaty’s “Questioneers” series—and who doesn’t, with favorites like Iggy Peck Architect and Aaron Slater Illustrator—then Agatha May and the Anglerfish (ages 4-8), co-written by Jessie Ann Foley and Nora Morrison, and illustrated by Mika Song, will be a sure-fire hit. Did I mention the story rhymes, too? And that it’s packed with fascinating factoids woven seamlessly into said rhyme?
If you’ve been hanging around here for awhile, you’ll know that I have a soft spot for books with neurodiverse characters. There was a time when I sent a child off to school and steeled myself for the emails to follow: He had a hard day. He wouldn’t participate. He threw his paper across the room. He threw his paper at a classmate. He refused to help during cleanup. My child wasn’t exactly like Agatha May, whose cubby is a mess and whose hands are perennially stained with charcoal, who chews gum when she’s not supposed to and delights in her smelly lunches. But he was judged the same way Agatha May is, with eye rolls from kids and frustrated tones from teachers. Agatha May isn’t given any labels in the book, but it’s fair to say that her brain works a little differently than those of her classmates.
But what an amazing brain it is! Agatha May is a dreamer, yes, but she’s also passionate about her interests—especially those that, like her, aren’t conventional. She’s focused and attentive when allowed to pursue these interests, leaving no stone unturned. Her vocabulary is astounding. She might seem like a loner, but she yearns for connection and lights up when praised.
Curious. Determined. Hardworking. Resourceful. Proud. What we discover over the course of this story is that Agatha May, the girl without any of the “merit points” distributed by her teacher and coveted by her classmates, actually embodies everything we want our children to be. She just doesn’t look the part.
One rainy morning
in science room ten,
Mrs. Marino cried:
“Pick up your pens!
“Children,” she said,
“we have spent the last week
exploring the world
of the wet salty deep!
“The Arctic! The Pacific!
The Atlantic wild way!
The—are you chewing gum,
Miss Agatha May?[”]
We get the impression that Agatha May’s behavior is a frequent source of interruption in science room ten, whether it’s because she has forgotten to spit out her gum, is daydreaming instead of listening, or is breaking into her lunch—a potent cod sandwich—in the middle of class. Agatha May responds to these admonishments with what appears to be her two signature classroom expressions: scowling or bewildered.
Mrs. Marino lays out a new assignment: each student must choose a water creature to research, then present their findings to the class. No two children may choose the same sea dweller, and the picking order will be decided by the number of “merit points” each student has. Those with track records of good behavior will choose first.
As Agatha listened, the tears gathered fast.
She had NO merit points! Her turn would be last!
She was tardy and dreamy, her interests were odd,
her fingers were charcoaled, her breath smelled like cod!
Agatha May watches as, one by one, all the popular sea creatures are snatched up, from the narwhal to the dolphin to the octopus. But then something happens—“something wondrous and strange!” Agatha May’s turn arrives, and her favorite fish is still unclaimed!
Agatha May wishes to study the anglerfish. If your kids aren’t familiar with this “glorious terror,” who wobbles in the darkest corners of the ocean’s floor with its vicious teeth and a “fishing pole fused to the front of its head” for luring prey, they will be after reading this book. Because Agatha May is all in when it comes to this unconventional fish!
She dives into her studies with vim and vigor, the illustrations revealing a montage of reading books, interviewing a SCUBA diver, and practicing off notecards for her presentation. Her face becomes more animated with every page.
The emphasis of the story falls, not on Agatha May’s research, but on her delivery itself, which spans nearly half of the book. Agatha May positively shines while pontificating about her favorite subject in front of her classmates and teacher. She even cuts the lights, draws the curtains, and uses a flashlight on her face—a nod to the angler’s bioluminescence.
Here’s where the book’s authorship is so effective. Children’s writer, Nora Morrison, has co-written this book with her sister, a SCUBA divemaster, who currently works as an aquarium diver. The two have cleverly incorporated a ton of facts about this fascinating fish—and I mean, a ton!—into the rhyming verse, without sacrificing its flow or fun.
The anglerfish resides in a part of the ocean “more unexplored than even the moon,” Agatha May explains to her captive audience. Remarkably, it can’t actually swim:
“It wobbles around,
Waving its lure—
a glowing blue speck
in a darkness so pure
“that when curious fish
come to check out this light,
it swallows them whole
in one massive bite!”
Then the magic happens. Agatha May’s classmates begin to interact with her, bubbling over with questions, which Agatha May patiently answers before commanding her audience to let her finish. Agatha May’s enthusiasm is contagious, and at the conclusion of her presentation, the children join her in affirming, “This fish is amazing!” “This fish is horrific!”
Agatha May beams at their response.
But even this pride in a job well done is nothing compared to what happens when the teacher delivers her praise. Mrs. Marino, it turns out, is a kindred spirit to teachers like Ms. Lila Greer (of “The Questioneers”). While she may become exasperated, she also recognizes the potential of unusual minds:
“Your desk is a mess,
and your cubby a fright,
but your mind is a treasure.
It pulsates with light.[”]
As Mrs. Marino goes on, and I won’t spoil too much more, we witness the delight Agatha May experiences at being seen, not just as an advocate for this unconventional creature, but as someone with ideas, ambitions, and dreams of her own.
Let us never forget the power of passion projects inside (and outside) the classroom. Let us never forget the power of praise. And let us never stop casting characters like Agatha May in stories as delightful as this one.
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Book gifted and published by Dial Books. All opinions are my own. Links support the beautiful Old Town Books, where I am the children’s buyer (and yes, we ship!).
I got all teary just reading this terrific ACCOUNT of this fantastic sounding book. I can’t wait to get a copy! Hooray for amazing, unique little minds in the spotlight!