Jacqueline Jules is the author of the new children's picture book The Generous Fish. Her many other books include the Zapato Power series and Feathers for Peacock. She lives in Arlington, Virginia.
Q: You note that The Generous Fish was inspired by two Jewish stories. How did you blend them to create this book?
A: Many years ago, I first read a story by I.L. Peretz, “Revelation; Or, The Story of the Billy Goat” and was completely enchanted. It is a Yiddish folktale about a compassionate goat with wondrous horns. Every night, this magical creature uncurls his horns to pluck jewels from the Milky Way. He drops these jewels in the streets for villagers to gather.
All is well until the people develop the need for snuff boxes. They approach the billy goat and ask for just a little bit of his horns to make a snuff box. The billy goat refuses no one. After a while, the goat no longer has wondrous horns and he can no longer help the community.
The story of the billy goat mirrors our relationship with the earth. We need to be careful not to take too much or we deplete the resources everyone depends on. I loved the idea of a generous creature for a children’s book but I was afraid a goat allowing others to cut off his horns was not child-friendly. So I started searching for another Jewish tale with a magical creature.
I came across a story in Ellen Frankel’s The Classic Tales, called “Cast Your Bread Upon the Waters.” In this tale, a boy takes the biblical verse from Ecclesiastes 11:1 quite literally, as children are inclined to do. The boy throws a loaf of bread into the water, feeding a fish that grows to an enormous size.
The same thing happens in a folktale called “The Water Witch” from The Diamond Tree by Howard Schwartz and Barbara Rush. Two children take the verse from Ecclesiastes literally and feed a fish daily. In both tales, the magical fish rewards the children for their kindness.
So after mulling awhile, I changed I.L. Peretz’s goat to an enormous fish with golden scales. It may seem like a huge jump but it gave me a way to use the motif of giving away all of one’s resources to help others.
Q: You've said that the story is similar to The Giving Tree, but with a happier ending. How would you compare the two?
A: There are similarities. In Shel Silverstein’s classic book, the loving tree gives every part of itself to a boy. In The Generous Fish, villagers request and receive golden scales from a magical fish named Nissim.
Everyone has a good reason. Devorah needs to buy clothes for her children. Old Joseph needs a cane. No one is greedy or asks for more than one golden scale. Still, the requests add up, and soon Nissim’s health is in danger.
Fortunately, Nissim has the ability to regrow his scales. The villagers ultimately choose to put aside their individual needs to restore Nissim’s strength.
So like The Giving Tree, The Generous Fish begins with extreme generosity. However, The Generous Fish ends with restoration and renewal. I wanted a happier ending for my book, because the fish in my story represents the environment rather than the personal sacrifice of The Giving Tree. I still hold out hope that we can reverse our current course and protect our beautiful earth.
Q: What do you hope kids take away from the book when it comes to environmental issues?
A: I hope that children will remember that individual actions can have a collective impact. Each one of us has a responsibility to do what we can to protect the environment. When we waste or destroy or litter, we are contributing to a problem. When we choose to use resources carefully, we are contributing to a solution.
I have a Teacher’s Guide for The Generous Fish on my website at this link. This guide contains discussion questions and kid-friendly activities for helping our earth.
Q: What do you think Frances Tyrrell's illustrations add to the book?
A: I adore the intricate framing of each page and the gorgeous palette France Tyrrell chose. It is always amazing for me to see the illustrations for my books. When I write, I focus on the story, trying to create a picture for my reader in words. I include few, if any, illustrator notes. I trust the illustrator to interpret my words visually. Illustrators make delightful additions I never considered.
For example, if you look at the last page of The Generous Fish, you will see a sailing ship in the right-hand corner. This ship is also seen on the first page, when Reuven, the main character’s father, leaves for a long trip. The appearance of this ship on the last page indicates that Reuven’s father returns home safely. The illustrator extended the story with information I did not include in my text and I am grateful.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I am always working on something. When I get a good draft of one project, I put it down and turn my attention to another project. Right now, I am working on some poems, a picture book, and a middle grade novel in verse.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I am excited about the April 1 release of my first poetry book for children, Tag Your Dreams: Poems of Play & Persistence. This collection of poems celebrates being active, reaching goals, and learning limits. Each poem is a vignette in which a narrator makes a self-discovery while engaged in a sport or game. Please visit my website to learn more.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Jacqueline Jules.