Thursday, December 17, 2009

A Fish Out of Water -- A Beloved Children's Book

One of my favorite books when I was a child was “A Fish Out of Water.” It’s one of the few books I kept, and it’s obvious from looking at the tattered spine that it was much read. (The photo is of a nice new copy.) It was published in 1961, when I was 4 or 5.

I loved everything about the book: The shiny hard cover, the size, the illustrations, and the story itself.

It tells the tale of a little boy who gets a new goldfish. Mr. Carp, the pet store owner, cautions him not to feed the fish too much:

When you feed a fish, never feed him a lot.
So much and no more! Never more than a spot,
or something may happen. You never know what.

Of course, the boy disobeys these instructions, and his tiny fish, named Otto, begins to grow and grow. He grows so large that the boy has to put him in a vase. But Otto soon outgrows the vase, too! The boy rushes around putting Otto in a series of larger and larger pans, the bathtub, and finally the neighborhood swimming pool.

My younger self found this endlessly amusing, and the many times that I have culled my books over the years, I simply haven’t been able to get rid of this battered old book. I ran across it the other day, and for some reason I got curious about the author, Helen Palmer, whose name I had really never noticed before. (Isn’t that the way of children? They can read a book a hundred times, but not even consider the idea that the book had a real live author, and an illustrator to boot!)

So, I looked her up on online. I was floored by what I learned. First, it turns out that Helen Palmer was married to Theodor Geisel, otherwise known as Dr. Seuss.

What’s more, she was not the original author. She revised and adapted the story from one Dr. Seuss had published in Redbook in 1950. In fact, it was his first poem published in Redbook.

I learned this on Collecting Children’s Picturebooks which shows the two stories side-by-side. Here’s a sample:

I like the Seuss drawings even better than the ones in my book. The fish and boy both have that wild, wacky, messy-hair look Seuss was so good at. And even though he’s wearing a tie, the little boy looks a bit demented. In the Palmer version, they both have a more sanitized, we-live-in-a-tract-home,1950’s Dick and Jane appearance. The Seuss version is also better at conveying the frenzied pace as the boy races around trying to keep his growing fish in water.

Collecting Children’s Picturebooks goes into some detail about how the new version came about: “There is little question that Helen Palmer wrote A Fish Out Of Water. In 1950, it is very likely she helped Geisel with the story and composition of Gustav The Goldfish, just as she helped him with many of his stories....Palmer was more an advisor, reviewer, or contributor than a collaborator.”

For some reason, he gave her permission to revise the poem for a new easy reader book, designed for readers just like me. Here's the jacket copy:

“Like all BEGINNER BOOKS, this one will prove helpful in developing reading skill. It is written with ONLY 175 DIFFERENT WORDS – the majority of which a child learns in first grade. The theme is skillfully evolved to ensure the word repetition necessary in building a “sight” vocabulary. Yet these word repetitions never become drills – they are basic to the plot so that a child will feel he is reading only for fun."

Well, that certainly worked for me!

The Picturebook website quotes from the dustjacket: “Helen Palmer, graduate of Wellesley College and Oxford University, was a teacher of English before she became involved in the creation of books for children. She has since edited literally dozens of successful juveniles and written an even dozen of her own. Married to an eccentric writer, Theo LeSeig (himself a Beginner Book author), Miss Palmer lives in California […].”

"The 'eccentric writer' LeSeig, Geisel spelled backwards, of course is Dr. Seuss. A bit odd, this concerted effort to distance Palmer’s connection to the leading best selling author/illustrator of children’s books....The result, for some forty years, is the public’s perception that A Fish Out Of Water was an original story authored solely by Helen Palmer. The cleverness of the story, the ‘preposterous-ness’, obviously, is due to Dr. Seuss." (Collecting Children's Picturebooks)

Well! The things you learn when you start to do a little research. I decided to delve into the story a bit more. Alas, what I found was a lot more disturbing.

Tune in this weekend for more…


  1. thank you ...i have been looking for the title of this book

  2. I remember this book from when I was a child. Very few people remember it, though.

  3. This was my daughter's favorite book. I just bought a copy for my grandson.