Fish for Supper
After being out of print for many years, The New York Review Children’s Collection has reprinted M. B. Goffstein’s 1977 Caldecott Honor Title, Fish for Supper. It’s a lovely treasure of a book, just the right size for small hands to hold.
The story is simple. A grandma wakes up early to go fishing. The day is described plainly and clearly, from eating breakfast and washing up afterward to eating the freshly caught fish and washing up again. What makes the story a delight is how, even though the book is black and white, we see the colorful world the spare text evokes: “she could see her yellow boathouse staring back at her with dark eyes from the shore.” And along with Grandma, we imagine the house as yellow, the dark blue water below it, the light blue sky above.
Equally wonderful is the measured care the old woman takes along the way, her preparations and patient fishing. Best of all is the reward at the end. Grandma “waited for the fish to bite. She caught sunfish, crappies, perch, and sometimes a big northern pike.” She goes home, cleans the fish, and fries them in butter. Then “she took fresh rolls out of the oven, put water for tea on the stove.”
As a grandma, not just an old woman—the author is clear from the start that this is “my grandmother”—we expect to see that the feast she has beautifully prepared will be served to her waiting family. But instead of the typical grandchildren, this meal that took a day to get is only for one. Grandma “sat down and ate very slowly, taking care not to choke on a bone.”
It’s a surprising and wonderful ending. We’ve seen the old woman’s fastidious, steady character from the first page. She’s someone who likes to do things the right way. And she’s willing to put time and effort into a meal that she alone will enjoy, not something we expect from the stereotypical grandma who’s constantly cooking for others. It’s this startling reveal, this jolt to our assumptions, that makes the book warm, humorous, and mind-expanding, all at once. After all, why shouldn’t an old woman fish for herself? If an old man did this, we would not be surprised at all. The author has deliberately upended our stereotypes while presenting a tidy little world of a place for everything and everything in its place. And given us a wonderful new sense of what a grandmother can be.