The beginning of summer is an exciting time here at the library, as it marks the launch of our annual Summer Reading Program, a multi-faceted all-ages program with challenges, games, and opportunities to win prizes. Though this year is quite different than those previous – we’re nearly a week into our first ever all-virtual summer reading program – it’s exciting all the same. This year, the themes of fairy tales, mythology, and fantasy are woven into a collective slogan: “Imagine Your Story.”
Recently, I set sail with The Penguin Book of Mermaids, a collection of stories about mermaids and merfolk edited by Christina Bacchilega and Marie Alohalni Brown, both of whom are professors at the University of Hawai’i at Māoa. To be honest, it’s happenstance that I chose a title that fits snugly into this year’s summer reading theme. I chose it not for its relation to mythology, but because of my fascination with and fondness for large bodies of water. As it turns out, I’m also fascinated by mythology, at least that which is water-centric.
Before diving in, the editors introduce us to this sea of stories by providing cultural and historical contexts, asking questions, discussing the aims of the book, and examining the complexities of human/nonhuman relationships. From Henrich Heine’s “Die Lore-Ley” to “Mermaids Among Us Today,” their introduction provides an overarching critique that they maintain throughout the book with succinct introductions/critiques to most of the stories within. Also, they remind us that “Mermaid stories did not emerge as fairy tales–that is, as fictions–but as myths and legends.”
Of the sixty-plus stories included in the book, twenty make their debut in the English language, having been translated from nine different languages. The tales are organized as follows: Water Deities and Sirens from Olden Times; Mermaids and Other Merbeings in Europe; Literary Tales; and Merfolk and Water Spirits Across Cultures. The stories may be read as stand-alones and their lengths range from very short, such as a few stanzas or a paragraph, to several pages, though most are a page or two. For those who would like to dive deeper, the editors offer numerous suggestions for further reading as well as extensive endnotes.
I’m as intrigued with the editors’ introductions and commentary as with the actual stories. Perhaps more intrigued, at times, as their comments illuminate the tales in a way that encourages us to further explore and reflect on the stories we think we are familiar with through contemporary adaptations, such as The Little Mermaid, which is shared in both its Japanese and American versions.
Interestingly, these tales share common literary dichotomies and themes regardless of the culture from where they came. Good vs. evil, real vs. imaginary, soul vs. body, human vs. nonhuman, love vs. hate, courage and heroism, sexuality and gender and coming of age are some examples. The editors do well to examine and discuss these and others throughout the book, including humans’ tendency to “collectively other anything nonhuman or not wholly human.”
In a word, The Penguin Book of Mermaids is fantastic. It’s academic, cross-cultural, entertaining, and as mesmerizing as the very mermaids and merfolk depicted within.
To begin imagining your (virtual) summer reading story, visit www.joplinpubliclibrary.org. Bon voyage! And, as always, happy reading.