The Little Mermaid is one of my favorite fairy tales in all its forms. OG Andersen classic, the perfect Disney movie, and other adaptations as well (the musical Once on This Island stands out to me). I’ve been back on a fairy tale kick these days (I run a series of comedic retellings of the original tales on TikTok) so I picked up this graphic novel for a quick read, and it’s very sweet!
If you are unfamiliar with David Wiesner’s work, he is a fantastic writer and illustrator of surreal children’s picture books – Three Little Pigs who literally jump off the page, explorations of art through giant lizards, cats fighting miniature aliens… Often his books are wordless. They are delightful, and one of his Caldecott-award books is FLOTSAM, so he is a perfect fit for an undersea tale.
But interestingly, Napoli’s take on The Little Mermaid takes us out of the sea, entirely. The Fish Girl is a boardwalk attraction, the hook of a tourist trap that is an otherwise basic aquarium. The tour opens with the attraction owner claiming to be King Neptune, and he tells the tale of how he found the fish girl before encouraging attendees to keep an eye out for her as they tour the building. But the Fish Girl herself has strict rules to not reveal herself entirely – just give them a glimpse here and there. She lives a pretty lonely life – friendly with the underwater creatures (and in particular, a fantastic octopus), but forbidden from making a true connection with anyone beyond her controlling father figure. But one day a local kid sneaks into part of the building and she and the Fish Girl meet, and the prospect of an authentic friendship plants a seed of rebellion and lust for freedom that propels Fish Girl out of the tank.
Wiesner’s art is put beautifully to work here, as even underwater life in captivity provides great opportunities for his detailed and colorful style. His penchant for the surreal even gets to work its magic as we see the mechanics of the aquarium, the otherworldly relationship the Fish Girl has with the ocean outside, and some fun magic making with her tail. Here we don’t get a black and white evil witch or a problematic romantic motivation. The murky relationship of Fish Girl and her father/keeper gets focus, and it’s her longing for connection, friendship, and knowledge that gets our mermaid moving. I loved it!