Originally an award-winning play for children, Do Fish Sleep? is a heartbreakingly matter-of-fact look at death for middle grade readers from the perspective of Jette, a 10-year-old whose little brother, Emil, dies during the course of the book. Unsurprisingly, she and Emil are both puzzled about what happens to people after they die—animals, too. When Emil asks his sister, “Do fish sleep?” and “Is being dead like being asleep?” she answers “Maybe. Just that you don’t wake up again.” They then both agree that death and sleep are, in fact, very different.
Later on, Jette muses: “There are people who die because a sweet little dog bites them in the leg, and they get blood poisoning, or because they don’t know that you can’t eat lightbulbs… Some people die when they’re very old, and some people die in single digits. But one thing’s for sure: Everyone dies eventually, one way or another.”
Emil was never strong and his passing at age six comes as no surprise. In the wake of his death, Jette’s parents are lost, the family bereft. Honest, direct, sad, and confused, Jette is left mostly to sort out her feelings on her own—she describes them at one point as “Thick black clouds. Clouds of rage.”
Do Fish Sleep? is imbued with waves of sadness, leavened by occasional moments of light, incongruent humor typical of its ten-year-old narrator. A gently moving, deep book, its two-genres-worth of awards come much deserved. Read with a hanky or three nearby, but do read.
Written by Jens Raschke
Illustrated by Jens Rassmus
Translated from German by Belinda Cooper
2019 Enchanted Lion
Awards: Mildred L. Batchelder Honor Book for 2020. For the play: 2012 Mülheimer Children’s Theater Prize and the 2014 MDR Children’s Radio Play Prize.
Reviews: Publishers Weekly Starred Review
Award-winning opera singer Nanette McGuinness is the translator of over 50 books and graphic novels for children and adults from French, Italian, and German into English, including the well-known Geronimo Stilton Graphic Novels. Two of her latest translations, Luisa: Now and Then (Humanoids, 2018) and California Dreamin’: Cass Elliot Before the Mamas & the Papas (First Second, 2017) were chosen for YALSA’s Great Graphic Novels for Teens; Luisa: Now and Then was also a 2019 Stonewall Honor Book. Her most recent translations are Little Josephine: Memory in Pieces (Life Drawn, 2020), Super Sisters (Papercutz, 2020), and Undead Messiah #3 (TOKYPOP, 2020).