David Wiesner has long been a favorite author/illustrator of mine and I was over the moon when I found out he was creating Fish Girl, his first graphic novel, a collaboration with the wonderful children's book author Donna Jo Napoli. They have teamed up to create a beautiful, poignant story of self-discovery, friendship, and mermaids.
Well, one mermaid. Fish Girl's story begins in a three story brick building at the edge of the ocean in a seaside tourist town. Ocean Wonders boasts three floors of aquatics displays (only two open to the public) and one mermaid who is glimpsed occasionally - just enough to keep the public intrigued and coming back for more. There is even a bedroom on display for visitors to see where the Fish Girl sleeps at night.
At night, Fish Girl has run of the aquarium and she and her octopus friend swim and play. That is, after Neptune, the man who runs the aquarium, tells Fish Girl stories of her infancy and how he rescued her. He tells her stories of her kin, mermaids and muses, all the while she listens, silently. Fish Girl has no voice. Fish Girl is a retelling of Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid, but with superb modern updates, like dropping the Prince all together. In place of the witch is Neptune, or the man who calls himself Neptune. A human who tells Fish Girl stories of his rescue of her just as the rest of her kind were being lost to shark attacks and human encroachment, Neptune is constantly haranguing her to do her job better and bring in more money.
When Livia first sees Fish Girl, she is thrilled to discover she is real and not just a gimmick. Quickly, Livia sees that she and Fish Girl have so much in common and she empathizes with her. Soon, she is returning to Fish Girl's private floor with examples of life on the world outside, like pictures of horses and sandwiches encased in plastic so that silent Fish Girl can learn about life for humans. Livia even gives Fish Girl a name, Mira, short for Miracle. Inspired - knowledge is power - Fish Girl begins exploring outside of her tank.
Watching Fish Girl, Mira, grow as she makes discoveries and puts together the pieces of her sheltered, confined life, is wondrous and uplifting. As you might expect, if you are a fan of Wiesner's books, Flotsam (for which he won one of his three gold Caldecott medals) especially, you can imagine the amazing underwater world he creates in Fish Girl. And you won't be disappointed. I was fortunate enough to hear David Wiesner talk about his creative process and interested to learn that he will create and image and sit with it for years before the story that accompanies it makes itself known to him. This was the case with Mr. Wuffles ,(for which he won one of his three sivler Caldecott medals) which took ten years to come to fruition. With Fish Girl, Wisner had illustrations that went back to his time in art school, resurfacing again in 2009 when he contributed to a book called The Imaginary Library. Finally, he showed a handful of illustrations to his long-time friend Donna Jo Napoli and she began to tease the story out from them. Knowing this back story is marvelous and only adds to this unforgettable story of a girl living in isolation and what she does when she finally realizes her world is bigger than she knows.
Source: Review Copy