Written and illustrated by Paula Cohen
(Levine Querido; $17.99, Ages 4-8)
I love it when picture book art begins on the copyright page and continues onto the title page giving readers an early taste of what’s to come. That’s what first struck me about author-illustrator Paula Cohen’s debut, Big Fish, Small Dreams. In fact, Cohen’s charming digitally colored pencil drawings include Shirley’s right foot being lifted out of her shoe when the small girl nails the word fish on the title page just mentioned, an actual black-and-white family photo hanging on the wall, to Hebrew lettering under the sign “Gefilte Fish .40/piece.” Then there are the evocative outfits and old-fashioned food packaging helping to transport readers back in time to the small family grocery store inspired by her grandparents’ shop in Upstate New York.
Each family member in the book has a major role to play, Uncle Morris stocked the shelves and no one made a taller tower. Papa kept the store tidy and helped customers. But, it seems there was one item, a staple to the immigrant Jewish family that others in the neighborhood would not buy, gefilte fish. “No one would even Try it.” I have to say I could relate to the reluctance of the neighbors. My grandmother would serve jarred gefilte fish, and the only way I would eat it was smothered in horseradish sauce. Learning that some families made it homemade, however, did change my feelings towards this Jewish specialty.
Shirley may be young but she believes she has big ideas to sell this stuffed fish. Cohen illustrates signs near the cash register—Follow Me to Fish and This Way to Fish. And we see the smile on the brown-haired girl with orange ribbons in her braids standing near the store’s gefilte fish table. She thinks of how to make things faster, prettier, and more modern. Yet nothing would move those cans of gefilte fish.
Shirley’s family says they didn’t come to America for their daughter to solve problems, but then a miracle happened. The family rushes to the hospital when it’s time for Aunt Ida to have her baby leaving the store in the hands of Mrs. Gottlieb who Cohen draws snoring in the back of the store. This is when young Shirley and her precious white cat get busy. She decorates the store and offers “serve yourself pea soup.” But her biggest idea comes when Mrs. Hernandez arrives to purchase tomatoes and a pound of kugel. Shirley packs up her order nicely and places a surprise inside the bag. The drawing of Shirley innocently placing the tin of homemade gefilte fish in the brown paper bag is quite a sweet moment. More customers arrive and more gefilte fish is distributed with the sign “Buy Anything And Get A Surprise” hanging on the wall.
A grey, yellow and brown illustration of the neighborhood apartment building shows neighbors from various ethnicities tasting this new treat with smiles on their faces, but when Mama and Papa return from the hospital to an empty pot and no cash in the register our little protagonist is sent upstairs to go to bed early. The next morning neighbors are lining up for this Jewish delight: gefilte fish. And Mama and Papa couldn’t be prouder. “You know Shirley, you have some pretty good ideas in that keppele after all,” said Mama. Cohen weaves some wonderful Yiddish words into her story making the characters come alive on the pages. (Keppele means little head in Yiddish).
Cohen’s back matter tells the meaning of the Yiddish words she uses. She also explains the story of gefilte fish, along with supplying the Russ Family Salmon and Whitefish Gefilte Fish recipe. I loved learning about Paula’s family story. Both her words and drawings leave the reader feeling like they knew her. Sadly, before this book had a chance to reach readers’ hands in early 2022 Paula passed away suddenly. She is a woman I would have loved to have met. She recorded a beautiful video of herself emotionally opening the box that contained the book, and I am so grateful she had that joyful moment. Sharing this book with friends and family is a great way to assure that Paula’s story will not be forgotten. May her memory be a blessing.
- Reviewed by Ronda Einbinder