Monday, January 9, 2012

Fishscale Girl: Book Review

Fishscale Girl is a bilingual picture book told and photographed by Ann Hailey aimed at elementary school children.  It tells the story of a doll made by a Peruvian girl and how the doll travels to Davenport, Iowa.  The book starts with a beautiful picture of the Amazon river and leads the reader through the process of making the doll out of natural fibers, shells, seeds, and a fishscale that forms the torso of the doll.  We meet some of Fishscale Girl's friends (especially a tapir and a macaw), but soon see her sitting in a parcel, which will take her via airmail to the United States.  Upon entering a new world in Iowa, along the Mississippi, Fishscale Girl discovers similarities to and differences from her old surroundings.  She is excited to see that there are similar fruits and smells and even a big river, the Mississippi, but also new things to learn like reading or driving a truck.  Of course feelings of homesickness arise, but loving hands and pictures of her beloved homeland soon disperse those feelings.  The book features full color photographs on every page, accompanied by a simple text, first in English and then in Spanish.  The text is further illuminated by delicate line drawings.  The background colors for the text are as colorful as the South American jungle, with colors like green, yellow, orange, red, blue, and purple. 

The simple yet moving story is enjoyable on its own, but if you want to turn this book into a unit study, you can delve into the companion CD by Angela Chenus, also a bilingual homeschooling mother of five.  Angela has managed to put together delightful ideas and materials that expand each page into its own lesson.  For example, Lesson 1 leads the child from his own surroundings to the Amazon in Peru through a simple story and question/answer format by Fishscale Girl herself.  For a follow-up activity, the child is encouraged to draw a picture of his own home or Fishscale Girl's home.  Children in grades 1 and 2 are invited to write a story about their own neighborhood or simply copy the first page from Fishscale Girl.  (In my opinion, the copywork is more than enough for grades 1 and 2; I think the story-writing idea would be more appropriate for grades 3 or 4).  The last part of Lesson 1 is singing!  We are encouraged to sing "He's got the Whole World in His Hands."  (As is the case with all the songs on the CD, only the words are given, with the assumption that the music is either in public domain, common knowledge, or easily obtained in a public library).  Some other ideas on this CD include making a yarn doll with instructions (some simple drawings might have been helpful for parents who have never made anything like that), a game, painting, modeling, knitting or crocheting (again, prior knowledge on the parent's part is assumed), baking, delving into Spanish, and more.  There are also simple line-drawing maps to help locate the places the book mentions designed by one of Angela's sons.  

By the time you are through with the first book and the CD, you are ready for book 2, called Fishscale Girl and the Disaster.  This book takes the reader back to the Amazon and deals with pollution.  Fishscale Girl and her friends discover the flooding of their favorite picnic spot an island.  The island is left bare and the creek nearby is blocked by trash.  Fishscale Girl and her friends begin to clean up the island, re-using the trash whenever they can (by making a path out of plastic lids, for example).  They also replant the island using native plants.  The common work makes everybody happy, especially as they notice the effect of all their efforts.  In the end the island has become a lovely green oasis again.  There is no CD available for this second book so far.  However, a parent could easily turn the book into a great lesson about taking care of one's own surroundings, and might even find a spot in his or her own neighborhood that could use this sort of love and caring attention. 

You might wonder what Fishscale Girl is doing these days in Iowa.  To find out, you can follow her on her very own blog.  To find out more about the books, you can take a peek at the characters and also the lesson CD at Ann Hailey's website.  You will not only learn more about the books, but will also be able to purchase a copy and learn about Ann Hailey's support programs, which arose from writing these books.

Baski, Volume 1
Flora, Veronika, and Miriam have really enjoyed the books and go back to them frequently.  The older children find some similarities to some of the Maryknoll Magazine articles we read regularly, where they have encountered native communities from South America.  I was very much reminded of a Swiss picture book series called Baski, which my younger brothers enjoyed immensely when they came out about 30 to 40 years ago.  (I was already older then).  They tell the adventures of a little wooden doll in ten volumes.  Volume 3 is about Baski's adventures in the jungle.  They also feature photographs of the little doll.  But they're in German, of course. 

These Fishscale Girl books would make great gifts for younger children.  They can be used in bilingual education programs.  They would be a very useful addition to a homeschooling library when studying Spanish, South America, or environmental issues.  For children dealing with moves or separation, Fishscale Girl can be an excellent example of a positive way of dealing with those situations.  But even adult readers will probably be touched by the loving way these books have been made and by the thoughtfulness that is hidden in their pages.  Thank you Ann, for sharing these books with us.  I hope they will become popular with children near and far.   


  1. Thank you for this review. This is something my daughter would enjoy. She likes South America, especially the Amazon rain forest.

    Did you know that there were many German settlements in South America? I think Paraguay had ones of the biggest. Many people there are originally of German heritage. When I lived in Venezuela(late 70's), there was a traditional German village in the mountains called Colonia Tovar. We used to go there to have lunch and buy their beautiful hand blown glass work.

  2. One of my history teachers in high school in Germany had relatives in South America. My grandmother and her sister were born in Brazil of German speaking parents. (My great-grandfather was a German Russian). They left when they were about eleven years old. They lived in Rio de Janeiro. It's so funny to picture Germans there, especially German villages. Did people still speak German in Colonia Tovar? That must have been so interesting.

  3. How interesting! I lived in Rio as a toddler, between the ages of 18 months and about four. I have vivid memories of my home there. My sister attended the British school in Rio.

    Colonia Tovar is up in the mountains, and all the architecture is authentically German with the high pitched roofs. It's a big tourist destination and in the middle of a national park. They do speak German there, a dialect of the Black Forest area.

  4. Do you remember the bananas? My grandmother never forgot the bananas. She would not buy bananas in Germany because they didn't taste right! I think my grandmother and her sister went to a Brazilian school and not a German school, but I'm not sure. I don't even know if there is anybody left to ask about this detail.

    Thanks for the link about Conlonia Tovar. So some people from the Black Forest settled there. Even some of the signs are in German. That's so strange to see! It looks very authentic, though.

  5. For me it is the fruit juices, especially the oranges that they peeled and juiced for you on the street. I can't find mangoes or papaya in the U.S. that taste the same. The fried plantains where very good too. I miss all the colors of the tropics in South America, and the vibrant people who reflect these colors.

  6. Oh, my grandmother also liked those colors. She had a very colorful wall hanging in her bedroom that reminded her of Brazil.


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