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Perfect Picture Book Friday: Big Dreams, Small Fish by Paula Cohen


Book Title: Big Dreams, Small Fish

Author/Illustrator: Paula Cohen

Publisher & Year: Levine Querido, 2022

Intended Age: 4-8

Topic/Themes: Family, Food, Problem-Solving, Immigrant Experience, 

Opening Line: “Shirley’s family had big dreams for their new store in the neighborhood.”

Synopsis: Big Dreams, Small Fish tells the story of Shirley, a little girl with big ideas to improve their family’s grocery store but Mama, Papa, or Uncle Morris aren’t listening. Mama is busy wondering why nobody buys her specialty: gefilte fish. When Mama, Papa, and Uncle Morris leave for a family emergency, Shirley puts one of her big ideas into motion, with the help of her neighbors, tackles Mama’s gefilte fish problem.

What I like about this book: What I like about this book: I like stories of immigrant families making their way in a world that doesn’t always understand them and stories about believing in yourself, so Big Dreams, Small Fish was the perfect book for me. The beautiful illustrations evoke the I joy of city living and having neighbors, and, as a girl from the Bronx born to immigrant parents, I loved every colorful page in this warm and wonderful picture book, filled with heart.


Writing: Use this book as a mentor text to inspire student narrative and slice-of-life writing with illustrations. Students can brainstorm problems that their family is facing, both real and imagined, and then select one problem and write (and illustrate) a story about how they found a creative solution to that story.

Reading: Before reading, students can read the title and do a See/Think/Wonder using the cover illustration and then predict what the story will be about. 

After reading, have students discuss Shirley’s character traits and have students write a first person narrative in the voice of Shirley. Have students work in partnerships to revise their drafts. Publish their drafts and set a date for a community celebration.

Also, introduce students to the glossary at the back of the book and reread the sentences in the book with those words. 

Book Celebration: Invite families to listen to the book and student-created narratives and serve noodle kugel, pea soup, gefilte fish and a cake that looks like the one in the book.

Art: Using the apartment house 2-page spread, have students create pictures of their own houses with a peek into the action inside each room.

This review is part of PPBF (Perfect Picture Book Friday) where bloggers share great picture books every Friday. Organized and curated by author Susanna Leonard Hill, she keeps an incredible list of Perfect Picture Books. #PPBF

Have you read this book? Do you recommend a picture book? Let me know in the comments.

Personal Reflections on this Book:

Sometimes you choose a book, and sometimes a book chooses you. I had heard, through Julie Hedlund’s 12×12 Picture Book Challenge, that one of our members, Paula Cohen, had passed away suddenly. There was a book “unboxing” video online from just a fortnight before, of Paula opening the box, pulling out her picture book and looking into the camera with the words, “I’m an author,”  as her voice breaks with happiness. 

It was so sad that she never got to see her first book out in the world. The release date was so soon after she passed. I read numerous tributes to a beloved friend and colleague, including this one from Tara Lazar, and it all felt so unfair. I thought of all my dreams that I hold dear: seeing my two surviving children and my grandchildren grow, enjoying retirement with my husband in a few years, and, like Paula, publishing a picture book. In the scheme of our large world where people are fighting for their very existence, I know these dreams are just small flames. I have also learned that we can’t prevent dreams from being snuffed out by fate. Even though I didn’t know Paula, her untimely death at age 57 unnerved me. Paula’s book was titled, Small Dreams, Big Fish. I must get that book, I thought.

Just a few days later, I was in Picture Book, a bookstore in Dobbs Ferry, New York, and the first thing I saw when I walked in was a stack of Paula Cohen’s, Big Dreams, Small Fish


It felt like the book was beckoning me. I rushed over and held this beautiful book in my hands. A girl with a wry smile and a red dress and gold polka-dots looked off to the side as she stacked a precarious tower of cans. Paula’s illustrations, as I paged through the book, brimmed with vitality. As I paid, I told the employee what I knew about Paula and how happy I was to see her book and be able to purchase it.

As I spoke, she nodded, “Paula’s niece sometimes gives cooking classes here. The story is about her family.”

I love a day when something serendipitous happens and that day I had received two dollops. I thanked her. 

There is a recipe for gefilte fish in the backmatter of this book! Gefilte is a Yiddish word that comes from the German füllen meaning “fill.” That was fitting because Big Dreams, Small Fish is a book that will fill readers up with this story of Shirley, the girl who held fast to her dreams. Maybe it’s not achieving the dream that matters. Maybe, the most joyous and life-affirming action we can take and maybe the only thing we can control is, like Thoreau said, is to go “confidently in the direction of (our) dreams.”

I hope everyone reads this book and I hope Paula Cohen and Shirley inspires you to follow your dreams with confidence and joy.


6 Responses

  1. I am looking forward to reading this book at some point! I really liked your activities, too. Thanks for featuring this one!

  2. What a lovely tribute to Paula. I read Julie’s post and viewed the joyful video of Paula opening the box of books last week. The book sounds intriguing and I enjoyed your suggested activities — as I sit here and try to guess what the girl does to help her family grocery store. We all need to purchase a copy in Paula’s support.

  3. This looks like such a perfect book to read with a child. What a wonderful review.Now I’ve got to get me a copy to read!

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