Fish Girl, by David Wiesner and Donna Jo Napoli; Clarion Books, $25.00, 185 pages, ages 7-10.
On a lonely stretch of seaside boardwalk stands a modest three-story building hiding a big secret: inside resides the mysterious Fish Girl, watched over by King Neptune. For a small fee, visitors are welcome to glimpse the girl for themselves. Fish Girl feels protected by Neptune and believes his stories–that she is the last of her kind, that this building full of exotic fish is the last refuge of his realm–until she befriends a neighborhood girl, Livia. Now, the mermaid (soon to be renamed Mira) wants to enjoy life on land, but an inability to talk and lack of legs hampers the process. Slowly, with steady determination, a little yoga, and some magic, Mira’s lonely life changes forever.
Three time Caldecott Medalist David Wiesner (Mr. Wuffles!) and Donna Jo Napoli (Albert) debut their first graphic novel with an exploration of trust, betrayal, and bravery–Mira is kept in what amounts to a water-filled cage, lied to about her family, and forced to perform tricks for money. Adults will no doubt make comparisons to children and young women conscripted into all sorts of unsavory labor around the world, but the mermaid element keeps this story squarely rooted in fantasy and will not spook young readers. Interestingly, the protagonist is mute–most of Wiesner’s best-loved books are wordless, relying on visual storytelling. That’s not to say Mira doesn’t share her thoughts–somehow, she communicates with her underwater and oxygen-breathing friends, and cultivates a language of friendship with Livia. Deft interplay of myth and contemporary folklore make this splashy story hard to resist.