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Being removed from your biological family, at whatever age it happens, has life-changing impact. There will be negative emotions and responses which feel so intuitive, that the idea of ever shaking them off seems impossible.
The more resources which help children and parents to navigate these tricky emotions, the better! And so I was thrilled to find a copy of The Mermaid Who Couldn’t on my doormat recently.
Written by adoptive parent Ali Redford, The Mermaid Who Couldn’t (illustrated by Kara Simpson) tells the story of Mariana, a mermaid neglected by her mother. Mariana is found and nurtured by a turtle, Muriel, and the book depicts Mariana’s journey from the deep, dark depths of the sea, up to the fresh air and light of the mermaids’ cove.
This is a wonderful metaphor for vulnerable children to latch onto, offering hope and encouragement.
Just in case you might be thinking that this sounds like an overly-simplistic message for such a book to portray, let me reassure you that the journey from dark to light is never portrayed as straightforward.
When Mariana first surfaces from the sea, for example, she feels totally useless, as she can’t sing beautifully like the other mermaids – so she dives back down to where she was. She is sad and angry that she hasn’t been able to ‘survive’ in the light – but doesn’t know how to make things better.
Even towards the end of the book, when Mariana is in a much better place, there comes the line: “But if she feels low, as she sometimes still does, Muriel is ALWAYS close enough to remind her to look up at the sky…and sing her own sweet, mighty song”.
Mariana’s background, whilst it hasn’t been loving or nurturing, is not dismissed – instead, she is encouraged to sing “her own sweet, mighty song”. This validation of her experience reassures both parents and child that, however damaged a child may be, he/she is a unique individual, with a very special contribution to make to society.
The Mermaid Who Couldn’t uses a lot of helpful emotion words – useless, scared, sad, angry – to encourage the reader to voice their feelings. I liked this very much – small children struggle to understand, let alone articulate, what they’re feeling, so putting this language into their vocabulary, via a character who has experienced a similar background, can only be a good thing.
And – this sounds obvious, but I’ll say it anyway – the fact that the story centres around a mermaid, i.e. a mythical creature, makes the whole thing rather more detached from reality and, therefore, much more approachable for a vulnerable child. Anything resembling real life more closely might just be a little too uncomfortable.
This said, there are a few phrases or sentences which might be distressing to some children. I don’t believe they should have been excluded, as they may start important conversations for the children who read them – but of course every child is different, and some are more sensitive to language than others.
I really loved the bold illustrations, and found some of the facial expressions in particular very moving, subtly depicting the different emotions Mariana feels throughout her journey. But a couple of my friends weren’t sure about them – I guess it’s all pretty subjective, and certainly not a reason not to buy the book!
I recommend The Mermaid Who Couldn’t wholeheartedly – it’s a great book to have on the shelf. Whilst aimed at children who are adopted or fostered, it could be successfully used with birth children whose families were preparing to adopt or foster. It would also be a fantastic addition to any school library.
The author and illustrator have clearly intended this book to be aimed predominantly at girls, as they’ve previously released a ‘boys’ version: The Boy who Built a Wall Around Himself.
It’s definitely helpful for children to be able to see themselves in the story, but in the interests of gender equality I like to read my children books containing heroes of both genders – so I read this with my 3 year old adopted boys, as well as my 6 year old birth daughter, and it was appreciated by all.
As the book is aimed at ages 4-9, I was not expecting my 3 year olds to start long, deep, meaningful conversations with me after reading this book, but I trust that as we keep it on our bookshelf and return to it regularly over the next few years, the conversations will start to unfold. Any resource which makes this easier is a godsend.
Check out my review of The A-Z of Therapeutic Parenting, another brilliantly helpful JKP publication.
And 5 Ways My Toddlers are Different From Yours explains a little more about how adoption affects small children.