Kasarda’s picture book about a half-fish, half-lion cub addresses physical limitations and differences, and how to find a place in a world that doesn’t seem to fit.
Leeo the lionfish—not an actual lionfish, but the miraculous offspring of a lion and a catfish who fell in love—has the upper body of a lion and the lower body of a fish. In endearing, gentle artwork, Kasarda shows the love both parents have for their mismatched child. The front paws and lungs make Leeo different from his fish cousins. He gets teased for having to breathe through a tube when going to fish school, but, in a scene that provides a good reminder for children to stand up for those being teased, his cousin defends him to the other fish, saying that he’s clever for figuring out how to breathe beneath the surface. Leeo’s limitations aren’t restricted to the ocean, however, as his fish tail makes it impossible for him to run on the beach with his lion cousins. His loving family doesn’t see the fins as a limitation, and they fashion a wheelchair that allows Leeo to wheel along with them. The vividness of the wheelchair image conveys the author’s message with great clarity: Physical limitations shouldn’t make a child feel ostracized. The muted watercolors soften the tone, allowing the lesson to feel natural, not heavy-handed. When a storm strikes, endangering both his fish and lion cousins, Leeo shows versatility and quick thinking that enable him to save both groups, with the entire sea and land communities rallying behind him. In the important and empowering lesson for children, it’s heartwarming to see this “different” child fit in after his challenging beginning. Although the message is wonderful, the prose is occasionally stilted, especially when read aloud. Additionally, on two occasions the author’s voice and intention intrude upon the story: a lesson about whale breathing habits and a history of the Boston Tea Party. The jarring inclusion of these two facts disrupts the story’s flow, making it feel like an attempt to force educational content into the experience.
A lovely message about differences for children that falls just short of its potential.