The Secret History of Mermaids by Professor Ari Berk, illustrated by Wayne Anderson, Gary Chalk, Matt Dangler and Virginia Lee
Once again, the remarkable academics of Professor Ari Berk and multifaceted artistry that made The Secret History of Giants a treasure of a book come together to bring us The Secret History of Mermaids and Creatures of the Deep, another look into the archives of the Order of the Golden Quills. Like the Ology series of books published by Candlewick Press, Berk's Secret Histories (a series, I hope?) is filled with the same scholarly bits of folklore from around the world, gatefolds, flaps and books within the book, and magnificent artwork from a longtime favorite of mine and contributor to The Secret History of Giants, Wayne Anderson, returning artist Gary Chalk and new favorites, Virginia Lee and Matt Dangler. As we learned in The Secret History of Giants, the Order of the Golden Quills is a group of archivists, scribes, lore wardens and guardians of long forgotten knowledge who exist to record and protect the mysteries of the secret folk. The Secret History of Mermaids and Creatures of the Deep begins with this admonition, "Pollution of the world's waters and depletion of fish populations have led to growing tensions between merfolk and humans. It is the Order's intention to share with you all knowledge of the merfolk - their magic and enchantments, culture and language, customs and curiosities, and their unparalleled understanding of the deep - so that favorable relations with our sea cousins may be restored." The Order of the Golden Quills conducts studies and houses artifacts in a castle built centuries ago by giants and dwarves, with a secret entrance in a very dangerous to access sea cave. In case you are thinking of visiting, the castle is open to the public from midnight to 7 am on the last day of February, every third leap year.
The book begins by discussing the origins of the merfolk and Atargatis, as imagined by Virginia Lee, whose name may mean "the goddess fish, Atar." Known as the Sea Mother, the Bright One or the Star that Fell to Sea, she is considered the mother of all merfolk and her name is venerated in the deepest zones. There is even a mention of Charles Darwin, who speculated that humans were descended from merfolk who left the sea, however his theory was rejected by the Plinian Society. Anatomy, language and communication, including useful sayings and charms, and songs are each given two page spreads. Merfolk villages are detailed and described as is a mermaid's cave. Apparently some merfolk enjoy living in villages while others seek a life of solitude and retreat to caves. When they are lonely, they will sometimes venture to the shore in search of a human companion to bring below, which leads me to Cohuleen Druith, or Enchanted Caps, which are made exclusively by shoal witches using kelp, fish skin, or the sailcloth from shipwrecks and are often dyed red. They allow Sea Folk to breath on land or Land Folk to breathe under water, depending on the cap. These caps and their construction are detailed in a two page spread on Sea Enchantments which includes a double gatefold depiction of magical objects and occurrences. Another exciting discovery I made was the existence of lugh varry, or Tide Mice. Merfolk sometimes make gifts of Tide Mice to humans. A net is woven from mermaid hair and left to float on the ocean over the spot where a treasure wreck lies below. When the Tide Mice, who love to nest in sunken ships, become caught in the net, the human can take it home and, if it is allowed to sleep on top of a gold coin, will produce a new one every day it is held in captivity. However, a lugh varry must be returned to the ocean before it's keeper dies or it will bring about horrible storms called "mouse squalls."
There are many, many other fascinating aspects of undersea life described in this book, including a map of merfolk sightings, sea zones and hazards, stories of encounters with sea folk and a passage on the dark history of merfolk in captivity. There is a passage on selkies, merfolk artifacts, weapons, sea creatures, both gentle and dangerous, weapons, vengeance, curses and lost lands, including Atlantis and Lyonesse. Having read The Secret History of Giants, I assumed that The Secret History of Mermaids and Creatures of the Deep was based on actual folklore and not entirely fabricated. Even so, I decided to do a bit of informal checking around. I was able to find historical evidence of everything that I searched for and was especially pleased to find this photograph of the pew depicting the Mermaid of Zennor, which can be found in the village of Zennor, Cornwall, in a church that dates back to the 13th century. The story behind the pew is marvelous and retold in The Secret History of Mermaids and Creatures of the Deep.
For any child (or adult) with a rich fantasy life rooted in fairy tales and folklore, The Secret History of Mermaids and Creatures of the Deep (as well as The Secret History of Giants) is a MUST. It is by far one of the most visually appealing and engaging books I have seen in a long time. I actually prefer the smaller format of Professor Berk's books over the larger editions of the Ologies books. The information and artwork are condensed in a way that makes the books feel more magical, scholarly and special. Readers who are fascinated by merfolk should be sure to read Eva Ibbotson's Island of the Aunts, which is chock full of mermaids, selkies, kraken and other creatures of the deep. There are two other mermaid series written at the fourth and fifth grade reading levels which are very popular right now, although I have not read them - yet. Ingo, Tide Knot and The Deep, by Helen Dunmore and are set on the Cornish coast. Liz Kessler, author of the Emily Windsnap series brings a different perspective to ocean life with her books.