I think I am right in saying that Eric Carle is the most popular children's picture book artist living today that eschews the universal convention of facial expressions. Not every illustrator in the world could get away with it. Carle has sort of established a whole new placid unemotional genre all on his own. Consider, if you will, "The Hungry Hungry Caterpillar" who shows one brief moment of bellyache related pain before bursting from his cocoon to become a beautiful unexpressive butterfly. For my own part, this disregard of facial expressions is hard to get through. In one of his latest offerings, "Mister Seahorse", Carle tackles the weighty subject of a father's responsibility to his kin. Since I like this book more than some of Carle's others, I suggest you take the hero's nonplussed attitude as merely a realistic representation of real seahorses in the wild.
One day, Mrs. Seahorse becomes preggers. As is the seahorse custom, she promptly deposits her eggs in Mr. Seahorse's pouch. With the eggs safely ensconced there, Mr. Seahorse goes about his daily rounds. While out, he comes across Mr. Stickleback, Mr. Tilapia, Mr. Kurtus, Mr. Pipe, and Mr. Bullhead. Each fish has his own distinct way of caring for his born and unborn young. For example, Mr. Bullhead baby-sits (admittedly, Carle could have used a better term for this) his newborn hatchlings while Mr. Tilapia carries his young's eggs around in his mouth. Kids reading this book with their parents have the added pleasure of watching Mr. Seahorse as he approaches single fishies hiding in seaweed, behind coral reefs, and in small patches of reeds. In these scenes the page becomes translucent plastic, the reeds, reefs, and seaweed a beautifully painted scene overlaying the action. In the end, Mr. Seahorse's eggs hatch and as one of his little offspring attempts to go back to the pouch he remarks affectionately, "I do love you, but now you are ready to be on your own". Hence the popularity this book has enjoyed as a newfound graduation present for high school Seniors everywhere.
On the back of the book, Carle posts a note that explains how in most fish families eggs are left on their own. This book encompasses the exceptions to that rule, going as far as to show that the father is the main parent in certain cases. Rare but true. The premise is irresistable. One that I'm sure several children's authors are probably kicking themselves for not having thought of on their own first. Flipping through the story, Carle has passed over his normal palette of bright primary colors for deft pastel watercolors. They're still exciting to look through, but there's a definite underwater feel to the luminous pinks, blues, greens and oranges that abound here. According to the book, the art was done in painted tissue-paper collage. The result is a deft interweaving of crinkly creatures in soothing but lively shades.
There is, of course, the writing itself to contend with. Now I'm saying right here and now that this book's premise is good and its art is good. No arguments there. But there's just not much of a plot. It's a simple formulation of "Mr. Seahorse goes here, sees this, goes there, talks to that" repeated roughly four times. Characters do not smile. They speak without a conjunction in sight. It's all lovely to look at and your first reading of the book will be delighted. Your second reading will be a smidgen repetitive, but you'll still love the pretty pictures. And by reading number fifteen you'll begin to wonder why Mr. Seahorse didn't have a little more fun with his eggs. Or ask other fathers more questions. Or even crack a joke once in a while. These complaints, I should admit, are more to do with Eric Carle's writing style and less the flaws of this book in particular. Still, though this book is a beautiful story, it leaves something to be desired.
If you're looking for a good science-based book with excellent information about underwater creatures and an interesting series of facts about male fishies, there are few books better than, "Mr. Seahorse". If you want a story about a father saying goodbye to his offspring and letting them out into the world, "Mr. Seahorse" is your best bet. And if you want a book that is beautiful to look at and contains unparalled watercolors and nifty tricks to make you feel as if you too are under the sea, give it up for, "Mr. Seahorse". But if you want an underwater tale with oomph and pizzazz, choose Leo Lionni's, "Swimmy". This book is far better than "Rainbow Fish", but it still lacks the spirit of little red "Swimmy". In the end, it's an excellent tale in some respects and a mediocre one in others. Depending on what you hope to get out of your picture books, it should satisfy or disappoint you as much as you like. I enjoyed it. Not everyone would.