Written by Donna Jo Napoli
Illustrated by David Wiesner
Published by Clarion
A twist on the Hans Christian Anderson story of The Little Mermaid, the titular Fish Girl is a mute mermaid living and performing at a cut rate Aquarium, in the care of an apparently kindhearted proprietor who looks out for Fish Girl in a world she can’t understand. He dresses up as Zeus, and spins tales to his young and willing charge, about how she came to him and what he does for her, and she, of course, believes him. She has no reason not to.
Spurred on by questions asked through the glass by Livia, a frequent visitor, she begins to wonder, and pay closer and closer attention, and the facade starts to show cracks. Fish Girl begins to see her captor for who he really is, and works to return to the ocean from which she has been separated since infancy.
There are moments of real horror in Fish Girl, and many of joy and inspiration as well. But it is all fabulously told, with amazing sensitivity, by Donna Jo Napoli, who has created in Zeus a character that is almost sympathetic at times. He’s a sad, lonely man, who started out, I think, with good (or at least understandable) intentions, but over time finds himself, indisputably, the bad guy.
Fish Girl, given the name Mira by comic relief Livia, is a heartbreaking heroine. Napoli has wisely stripped her of the blind, self-destructive love from Anderson’s original telling, leaving us with a girl who has been victimized, but refuses to be a victim. This modernization of the sexual politics within the story is paramount to the success of Fish Girl.
Three time Cadecott winner David Wiesner’s illustrations are exquisite, with deeply muted blues and greens giving the world an appropriately and effective underwater feeling. There’s a dreaminess to the drawings that lessens the harshness of the story somewhat, in a good way. The juxtaposition of the mermaids and fishes swimming against the real world architecture is magical. (Does anybody do architecture like Wiesner?)
It’s difficult to look at Fish Girl, which the publisher lists as being for ages 10-12, and not feel like they’ve grossly misidentified their audience. The book, after all, is a thinly veiled parable about abuse and abduction. I suppose they look at it and see mermaids, and there’s some magic realism throw in and they think “This will be cool for the kids,” but it makes me wonder if they understood what they had on their hands with this phenomenal and important work.
A ten year old would certainly get something out of this book, but the full depth of meaning would hopefully be outside of their experiences and understanding. This feels to me more like a young adult title.
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