I’m always fascinated by famous figures from the past that have been largely forgotten by the public memory. It gives me hope when I look at some of the forgettable celebrities floating around today. Once in a while these celebrities of ages past will pop up in biographical films, written biographies, or in a very rare case, in picture book biographies. And when it comes to Annette Kellerman "champion swimmer, risk-taker, and fashion rebel", author Shana Corey says of her, "Few people have heard of Annette today, but in her time she was a household name." Now largely forgotten, Annette’s story is being retold at exactly the right time. In a nation chock full of childhood obesity and with a never ending need for strong female role models, Mermaid Queen stands out as one of the most colorful, accurate, and interesting picture book biographies out there. And it couldn’t have happened to a nicer gal.
She was sickly and ill in her childhood, but when Annette Kellerman’s father taught her how to swim suddenly an entirely new world opened up to her. Water became her medium. With it she grew strong, able to win competitions in a time when being feminine (which is to say, immobile) was key. She attempted a swim of the English Channel, performed for the Queen of England (after sewing some impromptu legs onto her suit), and when she came to America she made the biggest splash of all. Which is to say, she was arrested for her "indecent" outfits. Yet Kellerman fought back, pronouncing the women’s swimsuits of the time to be restrictive and swimming to be a wonderful healthy activity for all girls. A trendsetter in her day, Kellerman paved the way for women, athletic or not, who have wanted to do their own thing, regardless of the times in which they live.
On the backflap of this book author Shana Corey "knew right away that she wanted to tell the story of a frail ugly duckling who became a record-setting athlete and movie star" after she read the story of Ms. Kellerman. Certainly Ms. Kellerman has the requisite tale of rising above adversity that makes for a stirring biography. I was reminded of the David Diaz illustrated picture book biography Wilma Unlimited about another girl who spent her early years in leg braces only to become an athletic superstar. Of course, Ms. Corey was going to have to figure out how much of Ms. Kellerman’s life to tell. This is what intrigues me about picture book biographies. You have to show enough of a life to give a sense of wonder and accomplishment. So how much do you tell? Interestingly Ms. Kellerman’s early years actually don’t consist of the bulk of this story. Her youth is summarized in just eight pages or so and then she’s off to see the world. The rest of the book is given over to her performances, her accomplishments, and in the last four pages she isn’t pictured at all. Instead you see the women who owe a debt to Ms. Kellerman, and a montage of swimsuits throughout the ages. It’s a very interesting way to tie the book up. Not every picture book biography requires that you follow the subject from birth to death making this title is a good model for exactly that.
I know that a year or so ago people started to get a little dewy-eyed over Mr. Edwin Fotheringham, illustrator extraordinaire. The artist put pen to paper for Barbara Kerley’s What To Do About Alice, which was an amusing picture book biography of Alice Roosevelt. People liked the book, but they went positively gaga over Mr. Fotheringham’s illustrations. I liked them at the time, but I feel like my current reaction to Mermaid Queen is akin to what folks were saying about Alice. This book is a visual stunner from start to finish. Done in "digital media", liquid is Fotheringham’s muse. The endpapers are a cheery orange in the front, yellow in the back, with a wave and bubble pattern that shows up time and again throughout the story. Water makes its way into every spread, whether glimpsed beyond the curtains where Annette’s father and mother would play music, or seen reflected in the sky of Piccadilly Circus. Even a later court scene where Annette is nearly sentenced, her dress pattern is that of a whirling swirling sea.
The use of color in this book is another matter entirely. Fotheringham has chosen certain shades of green and blue and orange and peppered the book with them. And look too at when he uses one color or another for water. The first time Annette is brought into the ocean by her father she’s frightened of what she sees. The blue is impenetrable. Deep and uncut by waves or swirls. When she has grown comfortable with it and made it her own, Annette’s water is a frothy green shot through with white bubbles and swirls. Swimming the River Thames and that green becomes the thick sludge of a polluted murk, complete with floating discarded waste. After that, the English Channel is black and cold, and the only spot of color on the page Annette’s red bandanna on her head, the red of her lips, and the red of a sandwich held out to her on a stick. It’s the gloomiest image in the book, possibly because it is one of the moments when Annette failed in some way. There are few others.
There will probably be some question of historical accuracy in terms of Annette’s clothing. Did her bathing suits all look like the ones in the book? It doesn’t matter much to me, but there may be some debate amongst others. In terms of written accuracy, Ms. Corey has done the lion’s share of research here. The Author’s Note in the back (accompanied by a photograph of the real Annette) goes on for three full pages, and is then followed by an Acknowledgments page which sites sources, biographers, and even cites individual quotes from each page of this book. Everything from Annette marveling "My word" to a policeman saying, "Hey – what are you doing in that suit?" is accounted for here.
Of course the book this bears the greatest similarity to is Strong Man: The Story of Charles Atlas by Meghan McCarthy. Both books discuss the lives of people who became international sensations and then went on to promote health, exercise, and wellness in a time when folks weren’t too concerned with those particular things. The two books would pair together beautifully for any teacher interested in doing an exercise/biography unit. What really allows Mermaid Queen to stand apart from the pack is its ability to tell a story beautifully, with eye-popping illustrations to boot. Gorgeous and fun, this is a picture book biography that others should model themselves on. You’ll be glad to have read it.
On shelves now.
Notes on the Cover: It’s not something people usually take into account, but I loved that the little black words on the front cover (“A true story”) and the words on the back (“The spectacular true story of Annette Kellerman, who swam her way to fame, fortune and swimsuit history!”) stand out from the text. The raised text make the average reader want to reach out, stroke the book, and once touching it open it as well. It probably cost Scholastic a pretty penny, but it’s worth it. Gorgeous.
Other Blog Reviews: Abby (the) Librarian
Other Online Reviews: School Library Journal
- It’s Non-Fiction Monday, folks. Head on over to Chicken Spaghetti for the round-up.
- And finally, Ms. Kellerman was the inspiration for the Esther Williams movie Million Dollar Mermaid. Here’s a trailer for the film that is amusingly of its time.
Thanks to Abby (the) Librarian for the link.