Advance Review: FISH GIRL

Written by Donna Jo Napoli, David Wiesner
Art by David Wiesner, John Green
Published by Clarion Books
Release Date: March 7, 2017

It’s not every day you get two stalwarts of young reader literature teaming up to produce a graphic novel, but that is exactly what Fish Girl is. Three-time Caldecott Medal recipient David Wiesner joins forces with renowned author Donna Jo Napoli to produce their first (individually and collaboratively) graphic novel. The duo share writing credits, and Wiesner provides the art for Fish Girl.

Targeting a 10-12-year-old audience, Fish Girl tells the tale of the foundation of friendship, as a young girl named Olivia makes a discovery at Ocean Wonders – an aquarium renovated into an older house or warehouse on the boardwalk of an ocean town. Olivia’s discovery is the Fish Girl, the hidden curiosity of Ocean Wonders. Fish Girl herself makes some discoveries in this 192-page (182 of those being story pages) offering.

Lettering from John Green finishes off Wiesner’s artwork, which is filled with lush, vibrant watercolor imagery. Given how much the story in Fish Girl illustrates water as a barrier, a transmitter, and a source of life, it is incredibly fitting that Wiesner paints the panels in the subtle tones and washes afforded by watercolors. The small, tight cast gives Wiesner room to focus on setting, scenery, and, as happens in an aquarium, diversity. Herring, sea turtles, an octopus, a shark, seaweed, and coral and so much more fill the panels throughout Fish Girl. Wiesner also fits in exhaustion, hope, wonder, amusement, anger, and curiosity. His characters have a solid range of emotion and action, from Fish Girl to Olivia to Neptune to the kids who pepper the backgrounds and crowded scenes.

Napoli sculpts the dialog to match Wiesner’s art, which I’m certain is more collaborative than that, but the two creators appear to be in lockstep. From the quiet double-page splash of Fish Girl, the ocean, and a full moon to the cutaway cross-section of Ocean Wonders, Napoli and Wiesner have a splendid sense of sharing that comes through to the printed page.

The story itself has a wonderful arc, with Fish Girl learning so much about the world around her as she learns even more about herself. Wiesner and Napoli insert a few fun moments, some surprises, and a snappy pace to keep it all flowing nicely. There’s a message at the heart of Fish Girl, a set of morals as thick as in any Disney movie, but Napoli and Wiesner keep the story upbeat enough to make the characters the primary focus, as the morals simply wash over the readers along the way. The creators keep the story free of perceived impediments, like chapter breaks or excessive text, but that same absence could also fuel urgency in the readers to plow through Fish Girl in one sitting.

As first steps go, Fish Girl is tremendous. Napoli and Wiesner deliver a strong start to their graphic novel careers. The images and story work nicely in concert, bending the concept of a graphic novel to fit the mood, rather than forcing their story into the shape of a comic book tale. Fish Girl has a little something for everyone. This is an unexpected gem that deserves attention, both from the target audience of tweens as well as from readers looking for something a little bit different and refreshing. Be sure to check out Fish Girl, if you can find her. Thankfully you have a few weeks before she hits shelves, so it’s most likely still possible to get a special order in.

The Verdict: 9.0/10