Rebecca Podos. Like Water. New York: Balzer + Bray, 2017.
Rating: 4 out of 5 sequined Vegas-style mermaid tails “the glittering aquamarine of painted oceans in Disney movies.”
Savannah Espinosa had a Plan for her life. She was going to be one of the rarest, luckiest citizens of El Trampero, NM — the ones who leave. She was going to get a swimming scholarship for college in California, or on the East Coast, or anywhere else close to the ocean.
Then her dad was diagnosed with Huntington’s, and everything fell apart. Devastated, Vanni gave up on her dreams and her friends, and resigned herself to being just another townie trapped in “La Trampa” (The Trap). Now, the furthest she gets from home is the water park just north of Albuquerque, where she works as a mermaid performer. Definitely not the kind of performing she was hoping to do, but it’s extra money she can use to help her family.
At least there’s Leigh, the one friend Savannah has left, who’s just as disgusted with The Trap. Leigh, who’s more snow cone than soft serve, who dazzles Vanni with tales of her life in Boston, who might actually turn out to be more than a friend…
Things I really liked (besides the mermaid stuff):
- The food descriptions. Vanni also works part-time at her parents’ restaurant, and is surrounded by such amazing fare as chocolate-banana empanadas, puerco pibil (“pork braised in spices, orange juice, grapefruit juice, and lime juice and cooked inside banana leaves”), costillas adobadas con mole poblano (spare ribs with Mexican chocolate sauce, Kahlua, and “unidentified magic”)… I almost drooled all over the pages as I read these descriptions.
- The fact that the Spanish words and phrases are not italicized, so there’s no “othering” of non-English languages. Both the Spanish words and the English words are given equal treatment.
- This one might be a bit of a spoiler, so beware. I really liked the message that — despite what all those credit score commercials try to tell us — your family doesn’t have to stop caring about you, or caring for you, once you’re an adult. And it’s totally not wrong or horrible to still live with your parents when you’re over eighteen. Family rocks!
Things I really didn’t:
- Ok, this is totally subjective, but how can Savannah be so MEH about getting to play mermaid all day? Sigh. Yeah, I get it; I know mermaids aren’t everyone’s jam, not even if you love swimming, but still! I would have been flipping out of my fins with excitement before every show!
- As much as I want to totally ship Leigh/Vanni, there’s a biiit of a problem. Leigh is seventeen, which makes her a minor, which makes it kiiind of illegal for Vanni to have sex with her. I mean, they’re only a year apart, which might seem like nothing, and their relationship is mostly totally consensual, buuut… there’s this one scene at a party where Vanni is trying to force the “girlfriend” word on Leigh, who’s totally not comfortable with that yet, and then Vanni makes things worse when she grabs Leigh and kisses her in front of everyone, which Leigh is definitely not cool with, aaaand… it’s just really not great.
It’s complicated. I do like Leigh and Vanni, and I totally want them to have many Clemente-Espinosa family dinners in the future.
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Beth Mayall. Mermaid Park. New York: Razorbill, 2005.
Rating: 3.75 out of 5 weighted plastic snowflakes you accidentally drop on one of the mermaids’ heads during the Christmas in July show.
Now, this girl is more on my wavelength! Amy Rush is absolutely enchanted when she discovers the mermaid attraction hidden on the north side of Wildwood, New Jersey. She begs her way into a job at the park — not as a performer (yet), but it’s a fin in the door. This is exactly the antidote she’s been looking for to all the stress back home, where her stepfather verbally bullies her and her mother does nothing to stop him. A summer away from all that, with a little romance thrown in, is just what Amy was hoping for. But it turns out there are family secrets hidden in Wildwood, too, and important revelations that will change Amy’s whole outlook on life.
Confession: this one is actually a re-read. I have fond memories of discovering Mermaid Park one summer home from college, in the amazing lakeside library of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. I’m kind of surprised Lake Geneva itself doesn’t have a mermaid attraction. It would definitely fit in with the town’s nautical, touristy-in-a-good-way atmosphere.
Anyway, fond memories. And, for the mooost part, the story still holds up thirteen years later. There were just a few big things that slipped through the cracks in my nostalgia goggles.
Things I (still) like:
- There’s a much greater sense of enchantment about Mermaid Park than about Vanni’s Lost Lagoon, even when you learn the secrets behind the magic show. Yeah, some of the bits are hokey, but it’s still a ton of fun. The whole Wildwood setting makes me really want to spend the summer at some seaside tourist town with a huge boardwalk, complete with rides and games and pizza parlors and shops selling novelty t-shirts.
- Like Vanni, Amy has some big insecurities she has to overcome over the summer. And the awesome thing is that when she does start to overcome them, it’s before she learns the Big Secret.
Things I don’t:
- Amy has a habit of making these body-shaming comments about people — mostly in her head, but still. Like when she’s looking for her family on the beach and she dismisses a group of people as “too chunky.” Or (and this is the one sympathetic thing I’ll say about Tom) when she derisively notices that her stepfather has gained weight since he lost his job.
- There’s also the group of people on the beach whom she dismisses as “too Italian.” I…what? I mean…what?
- The first time I read the book, I just thought it was unfair of Lynne to criticize Amy for throwing her stepfather’s insults back in his face, rather than being more subtle and sophisticated in her self-defense. Re-reading this book in 2018, Lynne’s criticism seems even more problematic. Why should a woman have to be gentle with an abusive man? Why should she have to hold her tongue, for fear of being labeled a “nasty woman” or a “bull in a china shop”? And I definitely don’t buy that whole “he’s just a human being, and human beings aren’t perfect” business — that’s never a good excuse for a bully.
- I’m going to have to be really vague about this bit, because it has to do with that Big Revelation at the end. How could [Proper Noun] not have realized that [Proper Noun] thought she was [adjective]? Did the subject seriously never come up before now?
Re-reading Mermaid Park was like watching an old Disney movie. It’s still mostly magical and nostalgic, even though some of the messages don’t hold up anymore. I’d still recommend it to mermaid fans, just with those extra grains of salt thrown in.
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David Wiesner & Donna Jo Napoli. Fish Girl. New York: Clarion Books, 2017.
Rating: 4 out of 5 t-shirts Neptune is selling with your face on the front, to drum up more business.
You’ll see her in brief glimpses, flashing behind the stalks of kelp or the school of herring. You’ll swear you see her smile and wave, but you’ll never be sure. She is the Fish Girl, the main attraction at Ocean Wonders, the three-story aquarium on the boardwalk.
She has lived in the aquarium for as long as she can remember, cared for by the salty Neptune. He may be a little crusty, but he’s the only family Fish Girl knows, besides her best friend, the giant octopus. Neptune keeps her safe from the outside world, and all he asks is that she do her part in the shows, offering tantalizing glimpses of herself to the human visitors she’s otherwise supposed to stay away from.
But then she meets Livia, who enchants Fish Girl with stories of yoga and pizza and horseback riding. And Livia gives Fish Girl a name — Mira, short for Miracle. And Mira starts to wonder, is Neptune really right to keep her locked away? Is he really the man he says he is? And does she really have the power to defy him?
Things I liked:
- David Wiesner’s art (mostly — see below). The characters are all realistic and expressive — from tired Neptune to cheerful Livia to the stern octopus — and the backdrops are bright and colorful and create just as inviting a setting as Wildwood. It all makes for a really fun, feel-good summer story, and for characters I want to keep coming back to.
Things I didn’t:
- The text, on the other hand, can be really simplistic at times, and even Captain Obvious-ey, especially Mira’s narration.It’s like Donna Jo Napoli thought the audience wouldn’t figure out what Mira was feeling from her body language and facial expressions alone. Overall, I thought the story could have been a lot better if Napoli had let the illustrations speak for themselves more often.
- Ok, so this is another completely subjective issue. But…
What…what is that? Did Wiesner run out of imagination when he designed this mermaid tail? Did he just give up when he got to the fins? He could have done something so cool and detailed, and instead he was just, like, “Eh. I’m done. Let’s just slap a generic, boring fin on here.” I mean…I guess her name is Fish Girl, and that is a fish tail, but…really? That’s the best you can do?
As I said, it’s a fun, feel-good story, and the art is mostly awesome. The text can be a little hokey sometimes, but it’s a story I’m happy to come back to each summer, for some vicarious seaside adventure.
* * * * *
These stories definitely make me want to check out a real mermaid show, like the ones down in Florida’s Weeki Wachee Springs. And if you want to keep up with the world of Real Life Mermaids, I highly recommend the following Instagram accounts:
- Weeki Wachee Springs
- The Perth Mermaids
- Mermaid Hyli
- The Singapore Mermaid Pod
- WW Mermaids
- Finfolk Productions