New Yorker cartoonist Liam Francis Walsh can tell a spirited joke in a single drawing—no caption required. In Fish (ages 3-7), a sly and soulful children’s book debut, he presents an epic journey with just two words.
“I actually did it wordless to begin with,” says Walsh, a cartoonist, writer, and illustrator who lives in Ticino, the Italian part of Switzerland. “I like that in my cartoons—frequently, I’ll do that—but then I thought, ‘Oh, it’s quite a long shot for a kids’ book to be wordless.’ So I put in words, basically just saying what was happening in the pictures, so it looked more like a kids’ book.”
Drawn in black pen and landscape-oriented paper, and colored bold red and robin’s egg blue in Photoshop, Fish is the story of a fishing trip made by an unnamed boy and his dog.
“At one point, the little boy’s name was Alex, which is my brother’s name,” Walsh says. “And I don’t remember what the dog’s name was—probably something pretentious. You know how some people will call their dog ‘Shakespeare,’ or something like that.”
Fish went through several iterations before Walsh took the words back out—and publishers began to bite.
In final form, the boy (formerly known as Alex) and his dog pursue, via rowboat, a most curious catch of the day. The first thing they hook is a red letter “F,” soon followed by an “I” and an “S.” Before they catch a “FISH,” however, they’re subject to consonant danger: a rising “C,” a swarm of angry “B”’s.
In a clever twist, their eventual catch leads to the book’s second and final word, “FINISH.”
Walsh was a big reader growing up, and his influences brought to bear on Fish include: Little Golden Books and hypercolored comic strips, Tin Tin, Calvin and Hobbes.
“We didn’t have TV when I was a kid—my parents were kind of old-fashioned that way,” says Walsh, who grew up in a nine-member Wisconsin farm family. “Instead, we’d go together to the library and fill up a big old cardboard banana box with books that I’d read again and again. I actually miss that—being forced to read a book three or four times—where now I’m lucky to make it all the way through one before I pick up something else.
“The really cool thing was to find something new every reading, or find some detail that you had missed, or something that made it richer and more clever,” he says.
Walsh originated Fish for a nephew who was a reluctant reader but avid young fisherman—but it soon grew to encompass his and others’ passions: for brother Alex, the race runners bookending the story; for him, the birds emerging from the background blue.
“I’m a birder, so there’s one of the things that I managed to sneak into the book—birds which are reasonably authentic,” he says. “There are some ducks in the first page, a great blue heron and, of course, there’s a hawk at one point. Those were fun to do.”
Walsh’s wish for Fish is nothing short of superstar status.
“I’m thinking Spielberg, maybe, to direct the film, you know,” he says. “Maybe Matt Damon as the little boy, George Clooney as the voice of the dog.”
Barring that, he’ll settle for the level of fame Alexander and the Magic Mouse achieved in his own family. The beloved 1970s children’s book, written by Martha Sanders and illustrated by Philippe Fix, was an instant icon.
“You might mention that book in society and people might say, ‘Huh?’ ” Walsh says. “But to me, Alexander and the Magic Mouse is iconic. In my family, you can make a joke about that book and everybody gets it.
“My hope for Fish is that somebody gets a kick out of it and remembers it and is inspired by it—to draw over the pictures and tear up the pictures and have fun with it their way,” he says.
Megan Labrise writes “Field Notes” and features for Kirkus Reviews.