The Little Black Fish – an Iranian story about determination and freedom

Is there a better way to start the new year than by introducing you to a book which will take you somewhere you’ve likely not visited via picture books before, is illustrated by the first Asian recipient of the most prestigious awards in children’s literature, the Hans Christian Andersen Award, and is about to be published for the first time in the UK with its original illustrations?

thelittleblackfishThe Little Black Fish written by Samad Behrangi, translated by Azita Rassi and illustrated by Farshid Mesghali is perhaps the most famous children’s book of all time back in its home country, Iran.

As anyone who’s spent time with children knows, the littlest people can ask the biggest questions, and so it is with the little black fish in this story who wants to find out more about life outside of the pool where he and his family have always lived. Just because the family have always lived a certain way, why shouldn’t this brave and curious fish extend his horizons and set out to explore beyond his known world?

As the fish travels downstream he sees incredible sights the like of which he could never before have imagined. He also faces some terrible dangers. Will the fish survive to see his dream – the wide open ocean? Will his story of inquisitiveness and desire for freedom inspire others?

Behrangi’s story took on great political significance in Iran after it was published, read by many adults as a political allegory (you can find out more here). Indeed the message was so powerful, the book was banned in pre-revolutionary Iran. Whilst this historical background gives the book an additional charge for adults, younger readers in 2015 can enjoy this short story as an encouraging tale about believing in oneself, about learning from personal experience, and about not being afraid to be different.

readinglittleblackfish

The Little Black Fish won the First Graphic Prize at Sixth International Children Books’ Fair (1968) in Bologna for its illustrations by Farshid Mesghali. The stylish bold textured prints in a limited range of colours are beautifully reproduced and bound in this smart edition from Tiny Owl Publishing. Their apparent simplicity suggests something both childlike and timeless.

Inspired by the style of illustrations in The Little Black Fish we set about creating fish prints using plasticine (oil based, non permanent modelling clay). This was a great activity for giving old and manky plasticine one last shot at life!

We squished together lots of old pieces, and created “blanks” of different sizes. These blanks were turned into fish shapes using scissors to cut them, and then decorated with impressions made using butter (blunt) knives, forks and sharpened pencils.

littlefishprinting

Top tips for printing with plasticine

  • Plasticine is more forgiving than lino or styrofoam for printing with little kids; it works really well when the inked design is squished a little bit into the paper.

  • If it’s a bit old or hard for little hands to work, drop it into a bowl of hot water or run it under the hot water tap for 10-20 seconds. This will soften it up and make it much more malleable and easier to press implements into.

  • Pencils work really well as mini rolling pins for little hands to roll out the modelling clay.

  • Once the plasticine is in the shape you desire, you can put it in the fridge for an hour or two to firm up before printing.

  • If you use poster paint or water-based printing ink, this can simply be washed off the plasticine afterwards. Because the plasticine is oil based, water is repelled and once the ink has been washed off you can dry the modelling clay and reuse it (something you can’t do with styrofoam or lino!).

  • Buttons, lego bricks, cocktail sticks, forks, hair grips, seed pods, pencils and shells are all useful tools for making impressions in the plasticine.


  • Once our prints were made we worked on some net-themed frames for them, making use of some of the cardboard collected over the Christmas parcel and present season. Here’s a short animated tutorial I made to show you how we did it:

    Here are some of our finished and framed prints of fish exploring the wider world!

    littlefishgallery

    Whilst weaving and printing we listened to:

  • Persian songs for kids on youtube including

  • Some Iranian folk music and dance including

  • We also watched several videos of Viguen, “King of Iranian Pop”, including

  • Other activities which would go well with reading The Little Black Fish include:

  • Creating a fish from paper lanterns – here’s a lovely looking tutorial from Live. Craft. Love.
  • Making folded paper fish using this tutorial from Buggy and Buddy. There’s something about how these look which reminds me of the print patterns created by Mesghali.
  • Turning toilet rolls into fish, with this tutorial from No Time for Flash Cards.

  • I’m delighted that Tiny Owl Publishing will be bringing us more translated Iranian children’s books in the coming months (although I do hope that future books will fully credit the illustrator and translator on the front cover of books, not just inside). What other unsung heroes in the international picture book world would you recommend I look out for – authors and illustrators who are famous in their home countries but who haven’t had wide recognition in the English speaking world?

    Finally, you might notice things look a little different on the blog today. Over Christmas I updated the blog so that it should now be fully mobile-platform friendly; if you want to view this blog on your phone or tablet it should now be much easier to navigate and more pleasant to look at as the text and images are fully scalable. I’ll also take this opportunity to highlight Playing by the book can be found on twitter @playbythebook, Facebook, Pinterest and even (in a very small way) on Youtube – please feel free to follow me wherever it suits you.

    Disclosure: I received a free review copy of The Little Black Fish from the publisher.

    16 Responses

    1. The plasticine fish look great in themselves (before used for printing) too!
      Claire Potter recently posted..Keep warm the Japanese way: Build a family nest

      • Thanks Claire, yes, we were pretty pleased with the way they turned out. Having the idea to use scissors to cut the plasticine made all the difference.

    2. Absolutely lovely to see your wonderful artwork of fishes and nets! I think this is an important book; full of potential for discussion and thought. I was lucky enough to work on the text for this edition of the story, and I can promise you that there are more excitingly illustrated Iranian stories to come from this new publisher!

      • I saw you’d been involved Pippa – how exciting! It’s a very lovely edition and I’m delighted to see it published. My dentist is from Iran and when I told him about the book he wax lyrical about his memories of it from his childhood.

    3. Thanks for introducing me to this publisher! Do you know if they plan to publish books from other countries or just Iran?
      Even in Australia recently posted..The Mockdecott is Coming!

    4. Alex Gutteridge

      I too love the plasticine fish and also the whole website. I enjoyed the music, the animation, the dancing. It is such a lovely way to enhance the reading of what sounds like a wonderful book.

    5. SIMONE FRASER

      Zoe, this post is another added to my expanding list of favourites. I am lloking forward to The Little black Fish arriving in Australia. The string net frame is a delight, as is the colourful fish created and the Iranian dancers were joyful and a joy to watch. Thanks!

    6. More beautiful artwork on show, Zoe – and thanks for highlighting The Little Black Fish AND Tiny Owl Publishing – exciting times!
      Marjorie (MWD) recently posted..Review: Music Everywhere! by Maya Ajmera, Elise Hofer Derstine and Cynthia Pon

    7. Would love to buy and read this book to my kids.

    8. This was one of my favorite books from my childhood. Glad that it is translated to English.

      • Yes, it definitely is a good addition (there have been translations into English before, but this is the first time with the original illustrations)

    9. […] Toft has kindly reviewed The Little Black Fish in her blog. The review can be found here. Here is some parts of her […]

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