Skip to main content

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.


Popular posts from this blog

Made by Dad: 67 Blueprints for Making Cool Stuff - Projects You Can Build For (and With) Kids! by Scott Bedford

On his personal website, Scott Bedforddescribes himself as an "Award Winning Online Creative Professional" working within the advertising and design industry. What is more interesting (and applicable here) is how hisWhat I Made website came to be. While sitting in a Starbucks with his restless young sons, trying to enjoy his latte, Bedford created something out of coffee stir sticks that ended up keeping his boys entertained, finishing his coffee in peace and sparking (re-sparking, really) his creative drive and reminding him of the "enormous joy gained from making things, even simple things, and that this joy is not the complexity or quality of the finished project but in the process of making itself. On Bedford'sWhat I Made website, he even shares Six Cool Coffee Shop Crafts for Kidsthat you can try out next time you want to enjoy your coffee and your kids are making that difficult. I've shared two below - be sure to check out the website and see the rest!


How to Choose Age Appropriate Books for Advanced Readers

How to Choose Age Appropriate Books for Advanced Readers remains the most read post on my blog since I wrote it in 2012. Because of this, I have cleaned up this post, tightened the writing and added in any pertinent information that has come about since it originally ran. When I first started in August of 2008, I was scrambling for content, finding my purpose and my voice and not always doing my best writing. How to Choose Age Appropriate Books for Advanced Readers was one of the first articles I wrote and, as a bookseller and a book reviewer, and now as an elementary school librarian where I have gone from working with kids reading well beyond their grade level to kids reading well below, this philosophy remains my organizing principle and central focus when reading and recommending books to parents and children. 

In the interest of my mission and the attention this article continues to receive, I have updated and expanded this article and included a guide to using …

POP-UP: Everything You Need to Know to Create Your Own Pop-Up Book, paper engineering by Ruth Wickings, illustrations by Frances Castle RL: All ages

POP-UP:  Everything You Need to Know to Create Your Own Pop-Up Book with paper engineering by Ruth Wickings and illustrations by Frances Castle is THE COOLEST BOOK EVER!!!  I know that I haven't dedicated much time to pop-up books here, but they have always held a special place in my heart, and the phrase "paper engineering" is a favorite of mine. Although I didn't know what it was at the time, I did go through a paper engineering phase when I was ten or so. I would sneak off to the back of the classroom during independent work periods and go to town on the construction paper and glue and make these little free-standing dioramas. A huge fan of The Muppet Show (the original), I reconstructed the all-baby orchestra from an episode, drawing and coloring each baby and his/her instrument then gluing them onto a 3D orchestra section I had crafted out of brown construction paper.  I also made a 3D version of Snidely Whiplash throwing Nell off a cliff with Dudley Do-Right wa…