Book Review: ‘Fishtastic!’ by Tess Weaver, illustrated by Jennifer Black Reinhardt

You may think you know whimsy, but unless you’re already a fan of Jennifer Black Reinhardt’s illustrations, you haven’t seen the half of it. The Iowa City illustrator pulls out all the stops for the visuals accompanying Iowa City author Tess Weaver’s charming picture book tale of a theater school of fishes. Inspired by the sculptures installed recently along the walkways that patrons travers to reach Hancher Auditorium, Fishtastic! (Hancher Auditorium/University of Iowa Press) joins the ranks of wonderful work commissioned or inspired by the theater, and seems poised to have just as wide a reach.

Published in April, the story explores the question of what makes magic and how we know whether we have it or not. Etta, the school’s costume designer, keeps desperately trying to breathe air like her friends. She’s never seen her designs sparkle in the stage lights — and, more fundamentally, she feels like she’s not “good enough,” since she lacks the one thing that sets her schoolmates apart from all the other fish in the sea.

She learns, though, that when something must be done, it can be done, and that she has more power inside herself than she realizes.

Of course, she learns this as the Fishtastics are on a school trip to perform at Hancher Auditorium.

Black Reinhardt’s loving illustrations of that local landmark make this book one that kids used to visiting there will surely cherish. But the universal themes, the gorgeous colors and the friendly characterizations make it a story that all kids everywhere can enjoy.

The tale itself is straightforward and accessible. Both Etta’s frustration and the loving support of her friends are palpable and comforting, each in their way. Etta’s sadness never veers into jealousy or resentment; her journey is her own challenge and she bears her heavy emotions in ways that are useful for children to explore.

Special mention must be given to the layout of the pages. The story and the pictures weave together with a masterful use of space, and the visual storytelling is as compelling as the narrative. Fishtastic! is perfectly paced and balanced.

The real star of the show, though, without question, is Etta’s pincushion hat. Attached with a thin string tied in a bow, the simplicity, necessity, and deft distinctiveness make it the must-have accessory of the year. Honestly, I want one. It’s the only thing the small fish wears, while her peers are all bedecked in her extravagantly designed costumes. It’s the sort of precise detail that elevates a children’s book from cute to delightful.

Pick this up for any 2- through 7-year-olds in your life, or any fans of Hancher, or any fish aficionados. It will become beloved.

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 297.

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