Then she was smoked, delicately. She was delicately smoked. Delicately smoked was she.
Those are my favorite lines from dual Caldecott Medalist Chris Rachka’s Arlene Sardine. When this story, about a little fish who wants to be a sardine, was published way back in 1998 it created a fair amount of controversy given the fact that the title character dies mid-way though the book. Some thought it hilarious (count me among them), some thought it dreadful, and some were simply perplexed. (You can listen to Daniel Pinkwater and Scott Simon read and discuss it here and you can see several pages of the book by clicking on Amazon’s Look Inside feature.) I adore it partly, no doubt, due to having seen Chris do his puppet show version where he blew powder over the can for the lines above and involved the audience which delighted the children, as you can imagine. But I also love the art work and the smart, witty, and spare text. For me, it is part of a genre of subversive children’s books that we adults can never quite figure out — are they meant to be straight serious or straight humorous? Strewelpeter very much fits this tradition for me; I see both books as tongue-in-cheek funny as well as meant to get readers thinking. In the case of Arlene Sardine I’d say the thinking part is about death and about our food. Chris has explained that the genesis of the book came from his eating sardines and wondering how they ended up in the can. Seems to me we are kidding ourselves if we don’t think kids wonder about that too.
Pets and Other Fishy Books (This is an article I did for Horn Book in which, among other things, I describe a class of mine not getting Arlene Sardine. Classes since then have loved it in the same way they love the snipping of the bunny tails in Bunny Days and other such books. More on my thoughts as to why here.)
Chris Raschka and His Round-the-World Sardine “Arlene” (Found in the comments to this post. Pinkwater weighs in too.)