Monthly Archives: March 2017

Even if Your Kid Has Never Heard of Gefilte Fish: The Carp in the Bathroom

I’m Korean, but I grew up in Great Neck and I was obsessed with the All-of-a-Kind Family books by Sydney Taylor (I’ve written about them here and here). So I have a soft spot for any book set in old-time New York where the characters have names like Zipporah and Moishe and eat noodle kugel.

Each year when Passover rolls around, my husband’s family gets together for a raucous and extremely secularized seder. I’m not sure the kids have any idea what the holiday is actually about because they are too busy stuffing themselves with chocolate-covered matzoh and playing with the felt finger puppets representing the ten plagues. But I’ve developed my own Passover tradition, which is to break out the 1972 classic The Carp in the Bathtub by Barbara Cohen and force my children to appreciate its charms.

It’s about a nine-year-old girl and her little brother who live with their parents in a tenement in Brooklyn. It looks like the 1940s or thereabouts. Their mother is a wonderful cook who makes an especially mean gefilte fish. To make sure she has the fattest, freshest fish every year for their seder, she always buys a live carp a week early and lets it swim in the family’s bathtub until it’s butchering time.

Love this illustration of the mom, walking so purposefully in her polka-dot dress:

The family’s tub carp is a beloved annual ritual. The kids don’t have to bathe for a whole week and it’s the closest they ever get to having a pet.

“Every time Harry or I had to go to the toilet, we would grab a crust of bread or a rusty lettuce leaf from the kitchen. While we sat on the toilet, we fed the bread or the lettuce leaf to the carp. This made going to the bathroom really fun, instead of just a waste of time.” 

Hands down, the most memorable picture in the book: The brother on the toilet.

One year they get especially attached to their carp. His eyes are brighter and he seems “unusually playful and intelligent.”

“There was something about his mouth that made him seem to be smiling at us.”

So the kids hatch a plan to save their friend’s life by sneaking him out in a bucket and begging their downstairs neighbor, the recently widowed Mrs. Ginzburg, to keep him in her tub.

“A few drops of water dripped onto the oriental rug Mrs. Ginzburg had bought at Abraham and Straus with Mr. Ginzburg’s Christmas bonus two years before.” (Love this!!!)

I love how gigantic all the adults are in the illustrations. They suit the story’s point of view perfectly: the adults are firmly in charge, but they’re not intimidating. They’re more like gentle, oversized, somewhat inscrutable giants. The storytelling has a sweet, gentle humor and even though the stakes aren’t super high, Cohen gives the plot some genuine drama.

But warning: Any child reading this book is going to beg you to let them keep a giant fish in the bathtub.

Christmas carp, c.1971 (photo courtesy of ČTK / Czech News Agency)

Today, when I was poking around the web I learned that keeping a fish in a bathtub for a couple of days is actually a well-established Christmas tradition in Slovakia, Poland and the Czech Republic. The idea is not only that this keeps the fish fresh, but that a few days living in clean water helps to flush mud from the fish’s digestive tract. (Carp are bottom feeders.) And it’s just as common for the kids to get attached to their pet fish and mourn them when the big day arrives.

 

 

 

 

Frederick Douglass 101

Leo came home the other day with a new school project. The assignment was to pick a biography of a famous African-American figure, take notes, and put together a report.

This is the book he picked out:  

“How did you choose this book?” I asked him.

“It looks like it has a lot of action!” he said. “The guy has a gun!”

I had to agree.

But I also had to overrule.

If Leo was going to learn about one person for Black History Month this year, it was going to be Frederick Douglass. No disrespect to Reeves (the first black deputy U.S. Marshal west of the Mississippi who is said to be the inspiration for the Lone Ranger) but come on! Douglass was back in the news thanks to Trump’s strange remark implying that the abolitionist was still walking among us. Also, the book Leo had chosen was a picture book. Nice try, Leo.

Our library had several biographies appropriate for a 4th grader. But as soon as I spotted Frederick Douglass Fights for Freedom by Margaret Davidson (1968), it was no contest.

And not just because the cover illustration of young Douglass has a smoldering quality, like an African-American Mr. Darcy on the BBC. The author, Margaret Davidson, wrote some of my favorite non-fiction books of my elementary school days. I still have a few of the slim paperbacks (all Scholastic titles) that I read and re-read — including Nine True Dolphin Stories, Five True Dog Stories, Five True Horse Stories (ok, the titles weren’t that creative … but such terrific stories!), and her biographies of Louis Braille, Thomas Edison and Helen Keller.

Davidson had a brilliant way of telling a true story simply, but with intense human (or —as the case may be —dolphin or dog) drama. The book gets in all the important milestones of Douglass’s life, but it never feels tedious, jargony or or in any way like “a book for school.” Davidson knew how to play up the little moments that her readers would latch onto. Leo loved the part about how little Frederick persuaded some poor white kids to teach him how to read by trading “a piece of bread spread thick with butter.” And he loved knowing how much money Frederick had to slowly save up to buy his very first book (fifty cents).

Leo read the book happily, put together his poster (see below), and I daresay he now knows a lot more about Douglass than our own prez.

Amazingly, most of my favorite Margaret Davidson books still seem to be in print. You can find them on the Scholastic website and they’re all priced at, like, $3.99 — so there’s no excuse!