copyright 1998 Chris Raschka. Orchard Books. Picture book, ages 4-7, but not really. 40 pages.

Chris Raschka generally knows what he's doing. His books have won Caldecott Honors and appeared on the New York Times' list of best-illustated children's books. The artwork in Arlene Sardine is very nice: zingy colors, fluid strokes, schools of fish zooming in swirls from margin to margin. Even the text is a bold black irregular fun calligraphy.

Ah, but the text. Once you get past the dust jacket (cleverly designed to look like, and open like, a real sardine can) - there's trouble. Arlene is one little fish among thousands, and they all share the same dream - to become sardines. They get their wish, and the reader is shown every step of Arlene's journey - she is scooped up in a net, left without food and water for three days, and dumped out on the deck of the boat, slowly dying.


On the one hand, kids often surprise me with their calm ability to handle the idea of death and other bad things.

On the other hand, this is just too fucking morbid.

Mostly what makes me squirm is not the subject matter, but the fact that the reader is asked to identify with a character whose death is glorified, whose life reaches its peak in death. Raschka is quite cheerful in his descriptions of Arlene's death, then her being smoked, immersed in brine, and canned.

The language of the book is mostly very simple (though he does use the words "fjord" and "hermetically"), simple and singsongy, i.e., geared toward younger readers.   "Then she was smoked, delicately. She was delicately smoked. Delicately smoked was she."   It's either intended for 4- and 5-year olds, or (one hopes) it's really intended to be a joke book for adults. But it was never marketed as such - I think it's more likely that Raschka just wanted to tell a wacky little story, maybe not realizing how bad an idea it was. Had the idea for this book come from an author and illustrator less honored and recognized than Raschka, I'm pretty sure the publisher would have rejected it immediately.

I'm not afraid of talking to kids about death, but this is too bizarro an attitude for very young readers. I can't quite bring myself to condemn this book, but it rubs me all kinds of wrong, and I won't be buying it for any kid I'm fond of.