Not the Little Mermaid

Mermaid Dreams – Kate Pugsley, Tundra Books, 2019

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Who doesn’t love a mermaid? With a fin in both worlds, this fantastic creature seems to appeal to the human desire to be more than one thing at once.  In Mermaid Dreams, author and illustrator Kate Pugsley adds a new resident to the undersea world when Maya, a bored and lonely little girl, finds herself transformed into an agile and beautiful being.  With bold colors and simple shapes reminiscent of both Maira Kalman and Leo Lionni. Pugsley places childhood wishes in a believable setting, which will draw young readers into Maya’s world of nature and dreams.


The book’s endpapers are a parade of coral, jellyfish, sea anemones, starfish, and more, against a white background.  They are not in the sea; these visual elements of the story have an independent life as part of Maya’s imagination.  We first meet her on a beach scene that looks promising: “The air smells fresh and salty.  The sand feels warm and soft between her toes.” Yet Maya is disappointed when she realizes that a day off for Mom and Dad may not meet her own expectations. Her request that her parents play with her is met with the thoughtless rejection of kind, but tired, adults: “Maybe later. We want to relax now.”  Maya sits sadly on her turtle floaty, then lies back, closes her eyes, and loses herself in thoughts of wonderful escape.


Suddenly, she awakens, riding a real turtle and discovering her new powers to move “just like the other ocean dwellers.  She’s a mermaid with a beautiful blue tail!” Who needs parents and beach umbrellas when you have seahorses, coral reefs, and an octopus?


The problem with that octopus is that “It has eight wonderful legs, but it can’t hold a conversation.”  Maya’s need for adventure meets her longing for companionship when she “sees an unusual shape in the distance,” which turns out to be Pearl, another child/mermaid. Neither Maya nor Pearl conform to the slinky Ariel image of their species. They are rounded, solid, little girls with lots of energy and no search for a prince.

The girls play together in the multicolored ocean, and their friendship survives on land as well.  Maya and Pearl walk into the sunset, Pearl holding on to a giant pink jellyfish kite floating in the air. This could be the start of a beautiful friendship. Mermaid Dreams invites children to test the waters of independence from parents, and reassures them that they are not alone in this quest.  Using the language of a child’s dream world and the shapes and colors of their own crayon box perspective, Kate Pugsley adds a new vibrancy to the enduring mermaid myth.  And Tundra books has done it again with ocean-based picture books.








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