I remember loving Leo Lionni’s book as a child, though I honesty don’t remember exactly what I loved so much about it. In re-reading it, however, I know what re-worthifies it. First and foremost, the story is triumphant and heroic. A small fish– with the unfortunate name of Swimmy– culls his desire for adventure from the fear of being too small for a big world. He experiences loss, experiences wonders, and ultimately mentals his way into a brilliant plan. From his ingenuity, you get a story where the small fry wins and the bullies do not. That’s always good.
But also, I like the story now for it’s details. For lines like these:
“A lobster who walked about like a water-moving machine…”
“strange fish, pulled by an invisible thread”
and best of all, “an eel whose tail was almost too far away to remember”
These descriptions stand out. Their abstraction is just detached enough that they make me pause and think before I catch onto what quality Lionni is emphasizing. It’s such a simple moment of purity in which Swimmy is experiencing something for the first time. In successfully abstracting the thing, Lionni lets you experience that newness too. It’s a pretty nice feeling, and anyone who can make you see something as if it were new has at least a little bit of magic up their sleeve.