The Only Fish in the Sea

Book review by
Jan Carr, Common Sense Media
The Only Fish in the Sea Book Poster Image
Strong, spunky girl takes lead in quirky rescue tale.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Unusual new vocabulary in signage: scope & optical, sundries, bric-a-brac, bait and tackle, slickers. Other signage to read: stop sign, etc. A host of sea creatures. Pictures of maps, though not ones we can actually read. Twenty-one balloons to count.

Positive Messages

Girls can be strong, strong-willed, and capable. If others are in need of help, we can come to their aid. People in a community can pitch in and work together for a greater good.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Sadie is a strong female role model who fixes her own bike and takes complete charge of planning and executing the rescue operation. She's undaunted by obstacles like rain or getting lifted up by a whale. She has a strong, if silly, sense of justice, wanting to rescue the goldfish and right the world's wrongs.

Violence & Scariness

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Only Fish in the Sea is by Philip C. Stead and Matthew Cordell, who collaborated before on Special Delivery, and here they bring back the same spunky heroine. In this book, Sadie takes up the task of saving a tiny goldfish tossed heartlessly into the ocean, and the story has a wild, irreverent silliness. A gang of monkeys barters with bananas, acting as assistants for the very elaborate rescue plan. And all ends happily when the goldfish is delivered to its new home, the fountain in the center of the sea town. Sadie is a strong female model -- determined, resourceful, unafraid, and unfailingly upbeat. The text is dry witted, with lots of detail to follow in the art, so be prepared to sit with this book and pore over it carefully to piece together its wildly eccentric rescue story.

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What's the story?

In THE ONLY FISH IN THE SEA, Sherman arrives breathless on his bicycle to alert his friend Sadie that a helpless goldfish, still in its plastic bag, has been dropped off the dock into the sea. Little Amy Scott was the culprit. When she got it for her birthday, she callously declared, "Goldfish are boring!" How clueless! Sadie leaps into action, taking up the cause in a big way, and plans an elaborate sea journey with the help of six monkeys, the townspeople, Sherman, and a crow. They have some close encounters with very large ocean creatures, but somehow, miraculously, the bag with the goldfish is delivered up intact by a churning wave. They bring the goldfish to the town fountain, where all the townspeople gather to welcome it, and the fish "will feel lucky to have so many friends."

Is it any good?

This unusual story about an oddball rescue operation has a spunky female mastermind, a motley group of friends that includes monkeys in sailor garb, and a definite off-beat feel. Even the paging in The Only Fish in the Sea signals that it's unconventional. We read five pages of text before turning to the copyright and title pages. The book has a lot of star power behind it. Author Philip C. Stead, well-known for his Caldecott-winning A Sick Day for Amos McGee, again explores animal-human friendship, though in this book, the story's more drily funny than sweetly tender and heartfelt. The girl who so thoughtlessly discarded the goldfish gets her comeuppance when she has to spend her birthday alone.

There's so much to follow in the art that it almost feels like a search-and-find book. Artist Matthew Cordell has lots of fun with the inhabitants of the seaside town, many of whom are graying and wizened, giving the place an old-salt feel. His people have a sketchy quality that brings to mind Quentin Blake's illustrations for Roald Dahl books, which makes perfect sense, since this story's equally eccentric. And he finds lots of opportunities to underscore Sadie's independent streak. When we first meet her, we see her taking apart and tinkering with her bicycle. If you're looking to spice up your story time, this story adds plenty of salt.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the rescue in The Only Fish in the Sea. How does it happen, exactly? Can you go back and piece together each step? What are the balloons used for? The paint? How do the monkeys help?

  • While they're out on the ocean, how does Sadie feel about the rescue? How does Sherman feel? What clues can you get about their individual reactions from the art?

  • What parts of the story seem real to you? What parts of the story seem far-fetched and funny?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love picture books and strong girls

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