Why are magical creatures so hard to write? I’m a children’s librarian. That means that a goodly portion of my day can consist of small starry-eyed children asking for an array of otherworldly cuties. “Do you have any unicorn books?” “Any fairies?” “Any mermaids?” Actually, more often than not it’s their parents asking and you can read between the lines when they request such books. What they’re really saying is, “Do you have any books about a fairy that isn’t going to make me want to tear out my eyebrows when I end up reading it for the 4,000th time?” Over the years I’ve collected the names of picture books that fulfill those needs. Like fairies? The Dollhouse Fairy by Jane Ray is for you. Unicorns? You can’t go wrong with Unicorn Thinks He’s Pretty Great by Bob Shea. But mermaids . . . mermaids posed a problem. It isn’t that they don’t have books. They simply don’t have that many. For whatever reason, writers don’t like doing mermaid books. Easy to understand why. What is a mermaid known for aside from brushing their hair or luring young sailors to a watery grave? Add in the fact that most kids associate mermaids with a certain red-haired Disney vixen and you’ve got yourself a topic that’s avoided like the plague. It takes a bit of originality, spark, and verve to overcome these obstacles. Having read his picture book Lester’s Dreadful Sweaters I knew that K.G. Campbell was a bit of a witty wordsmith. What I didn’t know was that he was capable of creating wholly new storylines that are as satisfying to adult readers as they will be to children. You want a mermaid book? The Mermaid and the Shoe is officially my latest recommendation.
Mermaids are talented creatures. Just ask King Neptune. The merman has fifty (count ‘em) fifty daughters and every single one of them has a talent. Every single one . . . except perhaps Minnow. The youngest daughter, Minnow can’t garden or train fish or sing particularly well. Instead, she asks questions. Questions that nobody seems to know the answers to. One day, a strange red object falls from above. No one, not even Minnow’s stuck up sister Calypso, can say what it is or what it does. Inspired, Minnow goes up to the surface to discover its use. What she finds shocks her, but also gives her a true purpose. She’s not just the youngest daughter in her family any more. No, Minnow is an explorer through and through.
My three-year-old daughter has a laser-like ability to hone in on any new picture book that appears in my bag when I come home from work. I hadn’t necessarily meant to try out The Mermaid and the Shoe on her, but once she zeroed in on it there was no stopping her. At this point in time she doesn’t have much of a magical creature frame of reference so it was interesting trying to explain the rudimentary basics of your everyday merman or mermaid in the context of Campbell’s book. She had a bit of a hard time understanding why Minnow didn’t know what a shoe was. I explained that mermaids don’t have feet. “Why don’t they have feet?” Not much of an answer to be given to that one. Happily she enjoyed the book thoroughly, but with its emphasis on cruel older siblings and the importance of making your own path, this is going to be best enjoyed by a slightly older readership.
As I may have mentioned before, Disney ruined us for mermaids. There will therefore be kids who read this book and then complain that it’s not a cookie cutter Ariel mass media affair. Still, I like to think those kids will be few and far between. First off, the book does have some similarities to the Ariel storyline. King Neptune/Triton is still the buff and shirtless father of a bunch of mermaid sisters and he still has his customary crown, flowy white beard (beards just look so keen underwater, don’t you think?), and triton. The story focuses yet again on his youngest daughter who longs to know more about the world up above. She’s accompanied by an adorable underwater sea creature. But once you get past the peripheral similarities, Campbell strikes out into uncharted territory, so to speak.
With this book Campbell strikes a storytelling tone. It’s a bit more classic than that found in some other contemporary picture books, but it fits the subject and the art. When you read that Calypso called her little sister “useless” the text says, “for sisters can be mean that way.” There’s an art to the storytelling. I loved that Minnow considers the shoe important because “This thing . . . was made with care. It has a purpose, and I will discover it!” As for the plot itself, I’ve never seen a book do this particular storyline before. Maybe it’s because authors are afraid of incurring the litigious wrath of Disney, but shouldn’t more mermaids be curious about our world? The fact that they’d be horrified by our feet just makes complete and utter sense. If you didn’t know they weren’t hands then of course you’d consider them knobby, gnarled and smelly (though how they know about that last bit is up for contention). Campbell knows how to follow a plotline to its logical conclusion.
I also love the core message of the book. Minnow’s talent lies in not just her brain (which I would have settled for) but also in how she sets about getting answers to her questions. At the end of the tale her father proclaims that her talent is being an explorer but I’m not so sure. I think Minnow’s a reporter. She not only asks the right questions but she sets out to find answers, no matter where they lead her. Then she comes back and shares information with her fellow mermaids, reporting her findings and sticking to the facts. You could also call her a storyteller, but to my mind Minnow is out there chasing down leads, satisfying her own curiosity over and over again. You might even say she comes close to the scientific method (though she never sets up a hypothesis so that would be a bit of a stretch).
There’s been a lot of talk over the years as to whether or not the greatest picture books out there are always written and illustrated by the same person (just look at the most recent Caldecott winners if you doubt me). You could argue both ways, but there is little doubt in my mind that Campbell just happened to be the best possible artist for this book . . . which he also just happened to write. I hate the term “dreamlike” but doggone it, it’s sort of the best possible term for this title. Notice how beautifully Campbell frames his images. In some pages he will surround a round image like a window with aspects of the scene (seaweed, fronds, or in the case of the world above, wildflowers). Consider too his use of color. The single red shoe is the only object of that particular bright hue in the otherwise grey and gloomy underwater lands. The mermaids themselves are all white-haired, a fact that makes a lot of sense when you consider that sunlight never touches them. They’re like lovely little half-human cavefish. And then there’s the man’s scope. I was reminded of a similarly aquatic picture book, David Soman’s Three Bears in a Boat in terms of the use of impressive two-page spreads. There’s an image of Minnow confronting a whale that could well take your breath away if you let it. The man knows how to pull back sometimes and then go in for the close-up. I have heard some objections to the mermaids’ teeny tiny seashells that seemingly float over their nonexistent breasts. And true, you notice it for about half a second. Then you get into the book itself and all is well.
With its can do mermaid who seeks answers in spite of her age and size, its beautiful watercolor and pencil crayon imagery, and writing that makes the reader feel like they’re indulging in a contemporary classic, there is no question in my mind that The Mermaid and the Shoe is the best little mermaid related picture book of all time. Utterly charming and unique, I can only hope it inspires other artists and authors to attempt to write more quality works of picture book fiction about magical creatures for the kiddos. It’s not an easy task, but when it works boy HOWDY does it work! Beguiling and bewitching, there’s only one true word to describe this book. Beautiful.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- The Mermaid’s Shoes by Sanne te Loo
- Mermaid Dreams by Mark Sperring
- The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires
Other Blog Reviews:
Other Reviews: Hooray for Books,
Videos: And here’s a lovely little book trailer to round us all out.