Swimmy – Leo Lionni, Knopf Books for Young Readers, 1963
When a tiny black fish realizes that he can swim faster than the rest of his school, he needs to get serious about solidarity and self-preservation. All the other fish are red, and the lack Swimmy’s sharp eye and sense of purpose. Although Swimmy was “…scared, lonely, and very sad,” he learns that panic in the face of existential terror just won’t work. He loves his home, the sea, which is full of wonderful and strange creatures. There is a lobster “who walked about like a water-moving machine,’ and some bigger fish moving together, as if “pulled by invisible thread.” When his fellow little fish warn him that, if he tries to enjoy his life, a bigger fish will eat them all, Swimmy concludes, “We must THINK of something.”
Next year marks the twentieth anniversary of Leo Lionni’s death. He had a well-established career as a graphic designer before beginning his life as a children’s book author and illustrator. Lionni was from the Netherlands. His father was Jewish, and his family fled the Nazis, settling in the United States. If you want to learn more about the circumstances and gifts that led him to create Little Green and Little Yellow, Frederick, Fish is Fish, and many other beautiful and contemplative works for children, read his autobiography for grown-ups, Between Worlds (Knopf, 1997). Swimmy is a fable set in the water and in the consciousness of a child. The little black fish is pragmatic and visually defined; his surrounding red friends are mere outlines moving aimlessly among the soft grey water and plants, about to be menaced by a huge predator.
These fish need to work together, and they also need a strong but unassuming leader. Lionni ingeniously transforms the small fish into one big one, in a formation designed to deceive the big fish who threatens them. Once they understand the need to band together, Swimmy assures them that he will do his job: “…and when they had learned to swim like one giant fish, he said, ‘I’ll be the eye.’” Some of the characters in Lionni’s stories are dreamers, like Frederick the poet mouse, or the minnow of Fish is Fish, who needs to learn his place in the world. Swimmy is more of a community organizer, an optimist but also a realist, who learns that his fear is rather useless in confronting a big, scary, bully. He restores harmony to the sea, as the lacy outline of little red fish against blue watercolor waves moves steadily onwards, “and chased the big fish away.”