The Magic of Mermaids
Of all the mythical creatures of the world, mermaids were the first to capture my heart. Whatever you call them—mermaids, merfolk, mer-people, or fin folk―these graceful sea creatures with the upper body of a human and the tail of a fish beguiled my imagination from an early age, just as they have fascinated people all over the globe throughout history.
Mermaids are a great source of inspiration for writing, as there’s such a wide variety of them in folklore. Art from ancient Assyria shows beings that appear half-human and half-fish, displayed in the Louvre. The One Thousand and One Nights collection of stories includes sea people who look like humans but live underwater. Another European folklore similar to a mermaid is the Melusine, with two fish tails that might remind you of a Starbucks cup. A Russian print from 1866 shows a mermaid and merman.
Mermaids were sometimes seen as ill omens, offering warnings or causing disasters. Most people are familiar with sirens, those seductive mermaids who lure sailors with their voices, only to drown them and their ship. But it isn’t just mermaids to watch out for, either—mermen can be dangerous, too. The Blue Men of Minch are Scottish versions of mermen with blue-tinted skin and beards, sometimes called storm kelpies. They live off the coast and challenge ship captains to a rhyming contest. If you’re witty enough, the Blue Men of Minch will allow you and you crew to live (I’d be toast.) If you have some ale, be sure to pour some in the water to please them during Samhain.
I’ve never been to Japan, but I wouldn’t want to run into any kappa while I was there. These legendary beings enjoy playing games with humans in which the penalty for losing is death. Survival tip: if you see one on land, be aware that the top, flat part of their head needs to remain wet. If it dries out, they lose their power and might even die. They also apparently like cucumbers, so keep one on hand to throw into the water to make them happy.
Modern pop culture has its share of mermaids, too. In 1984, the movie Splash! With Daryl Hannah and Tom Hanks made me wish I could be a mermaid. A town nearby had a water theme park called Aquarena Springs where women dressed up as mermaids performed in underwater shows, drinking Dr. Pepper from a glass bottle and performing tumbles and spins. They made me hold my breath in delight. I used to pretend I had a tail in the pool, but these days, girls have a much easier time of it than I did, with fancy fins for swimming already made for them. Aquarena Springs shut down years ago, but that same town holds an annual mermaid festival now, complete with a mermaid parade. My daughter’s generation also has the TV show H2O: Just Add Water, featuring mermaids. I watched the whole series with my tween, and enjoyed it just as much as she did (or more.)
Mermaids then and now. Credit: IMBD
It was only to be expected then, that when I began writing fantasy, it wouldn’t take long for merfolk to appear in my stories. Mer-Charmer, book two in the World of Aluvia, focuses on merfolk, and we spend much of the story underwater with them. While I read up on mermaid folklore before writing, I wanted my merfolk to have some distinctive features.
In my world, the magical creatures are suffering from a lack of magic. While Aluvia’s merfolk are human-like and very intelligent, they also are very much adapted to their world the way deep-sea creatures on Earth are. My merfolk have bioluminescent skin they can control to light their way in the dark waters, as well as neck gills and eyes designed for underwater living. Their magic allows humans to join a merfolk under the sea without drowning. Tattoos appear on their skin from the sea’s magic during their coming-of-age ceremony, in a pattern unique to each merfolk. While they rarely cry, a merfolk’s tear holds tremendous magical power, as my human characters soon learn.
Best suited for grades 5th-8th.
Cover by Amalia Chitulescu
Audio book by Tantor Media
Of course, mermaids appear in stories by a wide variety of authors. The most well-known mermaid in literature could arguably be Hans Christian Anderson’s “Little Mermaid,” long before Disney got its mitts on the story. This tale of love and heartbreak made me a fairy tale fan for life. When we visited Copenhagen, I was thrilled to see the statue honoring Anderson’s most famous creation.
Me, delighting in the Little Mermaid statue in Copenhagen
Thankfully, stories about mermaids have continued to flourish since the time of Hans Christian Anderson. Check out some of these mermaid tales from modern writers, along with Mer-Charmer.
For elementary age:
The Mermaid, by Jan Brett. Jan Brett is one of the queens of children’s pictures books, author of The Mitten, The Hat, Annie and the Wild Animals, and many, many more—to include, apparently, an underwater retelling of Goldilocks. (*Runs to buy it immediately!)
The Mermaid and the Shoe, by K.G. Campbell. Little Minnow is great at asking questions…for grades 1-4.
The Tail of Emily Windsnap Liz Kessler. A great middle grade series about an ordinary girl who discovers that when she goes in water, she becomes a mermaid with many adventures. 3rd-6th.
For 6th graders and up:
by Helene Boudreau. A cute book with humor, appropriate for younger teens.
by Jennifer Donnelly.
One of the most beautiful mermaid covers out there, which is saying something.
Considered YA and upper middle grade.
by Tera Lynn Childs. YA that’s appropriate for upper middle grade. I love this light, fun romance with plenty of humor. The covers are gorgeous, too—and fun to do Book-Face photos with: like this accidental Book-Face photo with me. (This was a library copy, but I own a copy now)
The Siren, by Keira Cass. A poignant stand alone with dark edges and beautiful imagery.
Of Poseidon (The Syrena Legacy) by Anna Banks. A mermaid story with star-crossed lovers.
Updrift (The Mer Chronicles) by Errin M Stevens. A romantic siren story.
Fans of mermaid mythology will find plenty of love in all the awesome options available today. What is your favorite mermaid story? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!
Amy writes fantasy for tweens and teens. She is a former reading and English teacher with a Masters in Library Science. Prior to writing novels, she spent ten years writing short stories, articles, and poetry for state standardized reading tests on a freelance basis.
As an Army kid, she moved eight times before she was eighteen, so she feels especially fortunate to be married to her high school sweetheart. Together they’re raising two daughters in Texas. A perfect day for Amy involves rain pattering on the windows, popcorn, and every member of her family curled up in one cozy room reading a good book.
World of Aluvia series
The world of Aluvia is a place of magic, but it’s a broken, dark world where magical creatures are suffering, and the land itself begins to shake apart. When the fairy queens disappear and their little fairies die, it marks the beginning of a long journey for three girls who seek to heal their world.
Sierra hates her calling as a fairy keeper, but is compelled to travel to the dangerous wilderness to find the lost queens. (Book One, Fairy Keeper)
Phoebe must help the gentle merfolk reclaim their magic once more—by first discovering her own. (Book Two, Mer-Charmer)
And Nell must hold the line when a new enemy arrives who wants to return Aluvia to the days when humans held all the power, risking the very magic they’ve worked so hard to restore. (Book Three, Dragon Redeemer)