"The Fish in Room 11," "In my World"

“The Fish in Room 11,” Heather Dyer, Chicken House; 2005;160 pp.

The goings-on at The Grand are just plain fishy and this isn’t because the hotel sits slap-bang upon the ocean front. It has more to do with the new guests in Room 11.

Heather Dyer’s “The Fish in Room 11” is an endearing little tale for young readers with a very modern take on mermen and their female counterparts, mermaids.

The Flot family has just checked into The Grand and they’re far from your typical everyday creatures of the sea. For one, Mr. Albert Flot, the merman, always has a cold from being damp all day. Mrs. Gaynor Flot is far from beautiful and the salty sea air doesn’t exactly do wonders for her hair. And young Eliza Flot looks almost blue and will eat anything, even the worms that people use as bait when they go fishing.

Toby, the author’s little boy-hero, is an orphan who was abandoned at The Grand and grew up there, earning his keep because Mr. Harris, the dour hotel-owner, would not have it any other way. Poor Toby has only one pair of clothes and no shoes. As Mr. Harris puts it: “And what does the boy need shoes for? He’s not going anywhere.”

If it had not been for a storm, the Flots would have continued to live in the little rock cave for the rest of their lives. The same storm takes Cook’s washing off the line and scatters it everywhere. Like always, Toby gets blamed for it.

So Toby goes off to the beach to retrieve all the lost washing and has a “chance encounter” with Eliza. (It’s not really a chance encounter, as we discover much later.) Before long, the Flots are at risk of being discovered by Mr. Harris, who would like nothing more than to imprison mermaids and turn them into a tourist attraction. The only way to save them is to put them in wheelchairs and let them live right under Mr. Harris’ nose, as his guests.

Young readers will get a good laugh at the Flots’ futile attempts to blend in and at Mr. Harris’ even more absurd attempts to discover the truth about them. Now it’s up to Toby to come up with a plan to rescue them. What he doesn’t know, though, is that he, too, will be rescued in turn.

“The Fish in Room 11” won’t change your life, but for kids looking for an easy, entertaining read that you can get through in one sitting, this is it.

Note: For children 8-12 years.

“In my World,” Lois Ehlert, Voyager Books; 2005; 36 pp.

Lois Ehlert’s world is the world we all live in and take so much for granted. She starts simply: “My world is made of things I like.” Page by page, she reveals that world and all its diversity. Creeping bugs, wiggling worms, leaping frogs, drifting seashells, shifting stones, singing birds — the words are slow and rhythmic, unraveling a world that is a miracle in all its minutiae.

The book has bright, multicolored pages in aquamarine blue, shocking pink, leaf-green and unabashed orange. Ehlert uses cutouts on these pages to stunning effect, starting with a child’s hand stenciled out of the eye-catching purple book-jacket, affording a glimpse of the contents. Inside, cutouts fold into each other and hide inside each other as you go from page to page. For instance, the creeping bug is cut out of the page, but its body is a riotous pink and orange because of all the pages underneath, waiting to be read.

With almost mathematic precision, the cutouts are arranged so that they complement each other: What appears to be the eye of a worm or a frog on the earlier pages turns out to be a spot on a butterfly on the pages that follow. This plays with your perceptions — holes punched into a bright-blue page appear to be a celebration of falling rain; turn the page, and the color changes to an indigo-blue, and now the same holes are remindful of the stars in the night sky.

In all of this showmanship of craft and color, Ehlert never loses sight of the text — or its celebratory message. Those who love the world they live in are truly rich. This is why her profound yet not overwhelming book is an absolute must-have.

Note: For children 3-8 years.

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