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Celebrating the Mermaid: From Bubbly, Sweet Creatures to Fearsome Sea Monsters

Posted on May 3, 2023 at 6:00 am

By Abra Cole

Most people are familiar with the tale of the bright-eyed, bubbly Ariel from Disney’s animated version of The Little Mermaid. However, in most tales, mermaids are not quite so friendly, or aesthetically pleasing.

The oldest recorded mermaid story is the Syrian goddess Atargatis, the woman who dove into a lake and was changed partially into a fish. In Japan, there are Ningyo, a half-fish, half-human creature with monkey characteristics. The Ipupiara from Brazil was known to attack and eat humans along the shore. The water spirit Mami Wata hails from African shores and is the protector of Black women. Greek mythology gives us Scylla, the female sea monster who spends her days terrorizing sailors unlucky enough to sail in her waters. The list goes on.

Merfolk exist as part of our collective unconscious. How many among us, after all, have spent summers imagining ourselves to be mermaids or mermen swimming under the sea or in a lake, pool, or bathtub?

Both fans and skeptics alike are hearing the siren call to head to the theaters later this month for the release of the new live-action version of The Little Mermaid (2023). Any re-imagined version of a beloved classic is bound to bring interest, and the 2023 release of The Little Mermaid has been no exception.

If beautiful versions of mythical sea creatures are not your predilection, there are plenty of other fish creatures in the sea. There are a shoal-ton of books about mermaids in our catalog. Most are about bubbly versions of merfolk than the original grim tale from Hans Christian Andersen.

Here I’ve highlighted a few books about mermaids, plus a handful of movies, that may meet or throw your expectations overboard. I hope you get a chance to check them out.

Books about Sea Folk

A Field Guide to Mermaids, by Emily B. Martin

Dive right into the world of mermaids with this book. Although this is written for middle grade readers, this book fuels even the most reluctant adult’s imagination. What if mermaids really existed? What if they were part of our world today? Beautiful artwork accompanies each type of mermaid, and the author contends that mermaids can be found all around us, not just in the darkest depths of the ocean. The intrepid adventurer will recognize many familiar places where mermaids have been sited. This book offers you darker, dare I say, more realistic, stories of mermaids and their ilk. (For ages 8+)

Skin of the Sea, by Natasha Bowen

This is the story of Mami Wata, a water spirit from African mythology. She has been assigned the task of catching the lost souls of those thrown from slavers’ ships as they cross the Atlantic. However, she comes across one such deposited captive who was still alive and needs her help to return home. (For ages 12+)

A Song Below Water, by Bethany C. Morrow

This modern day teen story is set around Portland, Oregon, about two friends as close as sisters. In this universe mythical creatures are real, and some are accepted as the norm, but not all. One sister is a secret siren, and the other struggles with varying symptoms that doctors aren’t able to diagnose. (For ages 13+)

Sea Witch, by Sarah Henning

When a secret witch meets a secret mermaid, they become fast friends. But is there more than what meets the eye, even between these two friends? Magic, princes, and royal celebrations round out this satisfying alternate reality prequel to the Disney story. (For ages 13+)

Stone Blind, by Natalie Haynes

This sea-creature tale is tangential to other sea folk and about Medusa and her Gorgon sisters. Haynes’ interpretation on this “monster” myth provides an alternative view to that of the traditional Greek story. Told from the perspectives of various gods and other immortal and mortal beings, we gain a different viewpoint into her life and death. Even her severed head had something to say about it all. (For ages 18+)

Into the Drowning Deep, by Mira Grant

A TV crew is filming a mockumentary with real scientists and pretend mermaids, and they get more than they bargained for in this science-fiction thriller. It is akin to Jurassic Park for mermaids. No one is cloning merpeople, but the mermaids behave in ways we all should have seen coming, but ultimately, did not. (For ages 18+)

The Deep, by Rivers Solomon

This book is based on the hip hop song by Daveed Diggs and is a lyrical merfolk version of the post-apocalyptic book The Giver. A society has formed from the babies of slaves who were thrown off of ships after they were birthed. The babies thrived underwater, growing fins and gills and building societies. There is one who keeps all the memories, called the memory keeper, so that the others need not remember the past traumas. But what is the cost of such a duty and burden on this one mermaid? (For ages 18+)

The Mermaid of Black Conch, by Monique Roffey

On an island in Tobago, a curse changed a local woman into a mermaid. Several centuries later, when caught by tourist fishermen in 1976, she begins to transform back into human. But was that all it took to break the curse? This story has elements of dark magical realism and language fit for a sailor. (For ages 18+)

Films about Merfolk

There are also movies made about merpeople. Many of them have tales of bubbly and adventurous mermaids and some have darker tales.

If you’re looking for animated movies about merpeople, I suggest the following:

And if you’re seeking merfolk films that are more intense and for an adult audience, you might try The Shape of Water (2017, Fox Searchlight Pictures) and The Lure (2017, Criterion Collection; Polish film Córki Dancingu).

I hope you enjoy diving into these stories of strong, powerful, magical sea people and their lives under the mysterious sea.

Abra Cole

Abra Cole works as a Public Services Specialist for Spokane County Library District. She enjoys engaging with library customers, including hearing about their favorite books, hearing about how their gardens are growing, and helping them solve technology troubles with personal mobile devices and the library’s 3D printer. In her free time, she enjoys gardening, expanding her fiber-arts skills, and hanging out in the woods with her family.

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