Inspiring Young Readers
Is it a Mermaid? by Candy Gourlay and Francesca Chessa
When is a mermaid not a mermaid? And what exactly is a mermaid anyway? This is the premise of this unusual story set in the Philippines which manages to tell an adventure story as well as provide food for thought about kindness, friendship and who gets to define identity. It is the first picture book by Candy Gourlay, an award winning Filipino author living in the UK.
The colourful collage style illustrations by Francesca Chessa are extraordinarily beautiful and suffused with a variety of rich blues and greens. I am fairly sure that most young children would look at the vibrant front cover with its picture of two children riding across the turquoise sea on the back of a large sea creature and expect that they might be going to meet a traditional mermaid as the story unfolds. But this is not what happens at all.
I love the detail in the front end covers that shows Benji and Bel happily playing on the sunny sea shore. In the distance we can see the tail of a sea creature which promises to be interesting. And indeed it is, because it swims much closer on the title page and then comes right to the shore. Benji confidently pronounces that it is a ‘Dugong’ and then both children, along with the readers, are surprised when she contradicts him and explains that she is ‘a beautiful mermaid’. I like the way that her huge body is given a whole double page spread when she makes this announcement. In a fascinating interview about the book, the illustrator explains that she wanted to present her ‘like an actress’ .
Benji is determined to prove her wrong even though she is clearly very comfortable and proud about claiming her identity as a mermaid. After all she has a swishy tail, loves to sing and even swims gracefully just like a mermaid. Bel doesn’t seem that bothered about names and at first goes along with what the creature wants because, after all, do names matter that much? Benji does not give up the argument and momentarily convinces them both that she might just be a Dugong or sea cow. She is so devastated by this news that Benji realises that he has gone too far and apologises. The Dugong immediately asserts her mermaid identity again and the three of them play together in the sea for the rest of the day. As time flies by, the quality of the light changes to a pinky hue and they say goodbye to their new friend. The last but one double page spread is reminiscent of Gauguin’s paintings as we all watch the creature disappear into the sunset. The illustrator explains that she took a long time to work on this as she wanted the colours to link back to the pinky colours but also forward to those on the last pages which change again to deep blues and violets as the children make their way back home along the beach.
Good picture books go way beyond the surface story and mine the depths of the imagination. They invite the reader into a world where they can explore what is on the page as well as speculate about what happens beyond it. Where did the creature come from and who told her that she was a mermaid? Do all mermaids look the same and how do other illustrators represent them? Can you think of other stories that feature mermaids?
This one not only tells a charming story but also provides information on the end paper about Dugongs and their disappearing habitat with links to find out more. The campaigning aspect is another reason to buy a copy of this book and to investigate how to help. I can guarantee that you will be able to feel the sunshine and hear the waves crashing as you immerse yourself in the beautiful pictures. And you will never think about mermaids in quite the same way again.