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Thursday, March 2, 2017

Fish Girl. Story by Donna Joe Napoli and David Wiesner. Pictures by by David Wiesner. Clarion, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Raincoast, 2017. $24.99 ages 10 and up

"It's so big out there!
What's that sound?

Whoosh, whisssh.

Again and again.
My heart beats in time
with it.
Waves! Of course!
I can hear the sea from
here. I love it."

I continue to be amazed at the power of stories told in graphic form. As you know, I rarely read such books because of an aversion I thought I had to 'comics' - developed long after I spent hours reading about Archie, Betty, Jughead, Reggie and Veronica. Those comics are the only ones I remember reading when I was younger. Encouraged by a friend to give over and take a chance on a few graphic books that he liked, I was impressed by the strength of story, and the details found in the artwork. So, with great admiration for both Ms. Napoli and Mr. Wiesner, I was anticipating a good read - and it is much more than that. It is quite the compelling look at a young girl, trapped in a world of someone else's making and learning that there is more to the real world than the one she inhabits.

Fish Girl is the star of the show. The man who introduces himself as Neptune captures the attention of his audience with his powerful voice, and message:

"I control the amazing
Fish Girl, just as I
control all the sea

I am god
of the seas!
I am Neptune!

Never anger me,
because you risk
seeing what
I can do."

Ocean Wonders is the man's brainchild, and many visit it daily. He tells visitors that Fish Girl is shy and almost never seen. That is what keeps them coming back - always wanting to be first to see her. She manages to remain that way until a young girl named Livia spots her in the tank. Fish Girl is terrified of Neptune's reaction, and turns to Octopus for comfort. She expresses her fears, and faces Neptune's wrath. He has dire warnings about what will happen if anyone sees her.

"If they see what you really are, all this ends!
You have to remain a mystery - you know that.
They'll call the police.
Then the scientists will take you to a lab.
You'll be a specimen. They'll cut you open.
They'll be repulsed by you."

Character development and a realization that Neptune is a callous man holding power over a young woman by threatening her and holding her captive brings this adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's story of a little mermaid to a modern audience. Sea and land are divided, and her life is a confining one. Fish Girl, through her growing friendship with Livia, realizes that there is more to life than the one she leads, and risks everything she has known to follow her heart.

"Seems like that octopus really likes you!
Can you talk to the fish?
Do you ever come all the way out of the water?
Do you have legs inside your tail like in the mermaid stories?

Legs? In my tail?"

That conversation is the beginning for a new journey that leads to recognizing her power over the sea, her strength of character, and her resolve to live on her own terms.

Troubling? Indeed! Memorable? Oh, yes! Beautifully plotted with characters who are sure to resonate with its intended audience, this is a tale of discovery, friendship, and hope. David Wiesner's illustrations are telling and effectively fill in details that complement the text and give readers a modern look at a creature of fantasy through his realistic lens.

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