Joe Krush: Classic American Illustrator (1918-2022)

The Fish from Japan -written by Elizabeth K. Cooper, illustrated by Beth and Joe Krush
Harcourt, Brace & World, 1969

Joe Krush was born on May 18, 1918.  I just learned that he died a few weeks ago on March 8th, just shy of his 104th birthday. Along with his wife, Beth (who died in 2009), he illustrated many wonderful books, picture books and illustrated novels, poetry, and a dictionary. Their deeply informed knowledge and practice, as well as their humanity and humor, will remain with you, as it now has for generations of readers. Beth and Joe Jrush worked with many authors, including Beverly Cleary, who passed away herself last year at just shy of 105 herself. I have written about Joe Krush for The Horn Book and several times on this blog

Joe Krush almost always drew incredibly detailed black-and-white images, which are now part of his incredible legacy. But one book, The Fish from Japan is in color.  It may be one of his and Beth’s least-known works, which is all the more reason to draw attention to it on the birthday of this inimitable artist.  If you are not familiar with Beth and Joe’s work, please find some of their books. Their deeply informed artistic traditions, as well as humanity and humor, will strike you, as it now has for generations of readers.

Cleverly created by prolific mid-century children’s author Elizabeth Cooper, Harvey is a little boy who wants a pet. Where have we heard, or read, this story before? He can’t have one. His mom, a cheery mid-century housewife enlivened and individualized the way the Krushes always managed to do in their drawings, thinks that a letter from his uncle will cheer him up. Mom is wearing an apron over her shirtdress, cozy slippers, and a bandanna on her head as she vacuums their house.  The letter looks promising, as it carries six foreign stamps.  Harvey is thrilled to learn that he can expect a fish from Japan!

The fish turns out to be a beautiful Japanese kite, probably much more distinctive than the turtles in Harvey’s classroom. It’s also really big, as we notice in a full-color illustration of Harvey holding it up with a look of disappointment and confusion on his face. Other pictures are rendered in yellow and black, including the one where Harvey raises expectations by addressing his class, promising to bring in the fish when it arrives. The class includes both Black and Asian children. Their teacher wears glasses, and seems as kind as Beverly Cleary herself

Part of the plot involves Harvey’s imaginary compensation for his embarrassing inability to produce a fish. He brings in a completely “transparent,” i.e. unreal, fish, and manages to convince his classmates that it is in a little box, and is quite rare.  The teacher is so adept at child psychology that she goes along with this well-intentioned fraud. In one picture two boys, one Black and one white, get so caught up in the excitement that they imitate the “fish’s” barely perceptible motions.  Both boys are wearing ties, and one has glasses and plaid pants.  We are transported to the past with these pictures, but also remain in the Krushes’ world of universal childhood.

I purchased this book used; it is obviously out-of-print. Someone had inscribed at the bottom of the title page, “Beth and Joe Krush drew the pictures in this book. Good Reading!” I can’t really add to that. Goodbye, Joe.

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