Hand Over Hand

By Alma Fullerton, illustrated by Renné Benoit. Second Story Press, 2017. 24 pages. $16.95/hardcover. Recommended for ages 4–8.

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A summer cold and writing setbacks had laid me low, when Hand Over Hand arrived to challenge my self-pity. Filipino Nina persuades her lolo (grandfather) to defy village tradition that holds “Girls can’t fish. Their place is on shore.” He takes her out in his banca boat and teaches her skills, which enable her to land a great fighter of a fish. Lolo reinforces the lesson: “Nina, you’re a fisher-person through and through!” And when a man asks, “How’d a little girl bring that in?” Nina explains, “Hand over hand.”

Still sorry for myself, I wondered why I couldn’t simply enjoy a book without receiving a message: I didn’t need to be told that I should confront problems “hand over hand.”

Having got that off my wheezing chest, I viewed the book with a clearer eye. Alma Fullerton, in Canada, had been asked why there are so few children’s books set in the Philippines. Now I studied Renné Benoit’s beautiful illustrations and was delighted by the clarity and color. As Nina and Lolo share their special day from sunrise through midday to sunset and into night, the watercolors reflect subtle blue-aquamarine, turquoise, gentle grays, glowing orange inlaid with deep pinks, then starlit ultramarine. The text, also, is clear and unfussy, generously spaced with an attractive font. It begs to be read aloud: “WHOOSH, WHOOSH, WHOOSH”; “PLICK, PLICK, PLICK”; “Fish after fish”; “ZIP after ZING.”

Back to the messages, Nina and Lolo confront gender prejudice peacefully and positively. The mature man enables the child to experiment and develop skills, to experience failure and success. She learns not only how to fish but also ways to respond to challenges and to share experience with an adult. Nina and Lolo respect each other. Lolo has skills and patience; Nina learns patience and skills.

There is another message: for Nina and Lolo, fishing is not a leisure activity, a sport. Their skills are necessary to the life of the community, for fish is an essential contribution to the daily diet. Many North Americans and Europeans expect to choose what not to eat. Such choice is a luxury that would be unimaginable for Nina and Lolo. It is equally unimaginable for many people in our own communities. Most people reading this review can choose what to read, and also what not to read.


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