This book is a gift to the world. As I read it I imagined wrapping it up in pretty colored paper and giving it to someone I love, to imagine them discovering it for the first time. Mermaid in Chelsea Creek is everything I’ve ever wanted from a Young Adult, “Chosen One” fantasy novel. I began this book looking for a light, summery mermaid read, and found something worth so much more.
Our protagonist, the realistic, sometimes-bratty-but-ultimately-good-hearted Sophie, is the daughter of a working single mother. Her mother is tired, burnt-out, and neglectful. Sophie feels unloved.
This was my favorite part of the novel, although it may seem depressing. I’ve never read a fantasy story featuring a neglectful parent before. Harry Potter has a nasty aunt and uncle and the Disney movie Tangled has an abusive mother – who is not, in fact, an actual mother at all. But in children’s fiction there is a dearth of children who are genuinely unloved or neglected by their biological parents but do amazing things anyway. The world needs these stories. We have an overabundance of dead parents in prose, but there’s always this assumption that these dead parents would have loved their children. Harry’s mother’s love reaches beyond the grave. And that’s a beautiful story, but it’s a story that many children can’t relate to. Give them something they can relate to, and then give them hope. Neglected children, too, get to be the Chosen Ones.
Onwards: I loved the fantasy elements mixed with stark realism. Sophie lives in a grubby city which contains a polluted creek. This creek is not only unimpressive, but thoroughly revolting. And yet it is here where the mermaid lurks, waiting to inform Sophie of her destiny.
The mermaid, herself, is perfectly magical, but she, too, is of this world: She’s from Poland, speaks accented English, and, what’s more, has a very foul mouth. A mermaid with a pirate mouth.
Another important setting is “the dump,” where Sophie discovers that a place filled with discarded items and heaps of broken glass is, just like the mermaid, enchanted: “The whole place was a mixture of sparkle and grit, sort of magical in an ordinary way…”
Throughout the novel the ordinary is made beautiful, the mundane and magical intertwined until the two become indistinguishable from one another. Reflecting this theme is the prose: Michelle Tea writes beautifully, but sometimes conversationally. Her characters, too, speak not like characters in a book but like real people. They curse and have accents and say ‘like’ too many times. This theme – the ordinary is deeply, profoundly beautiful – is reinforced by every aspect of the book.
Also, I know a lot of people don’t like pigeons, but I love them. Michelle Tea, too, has been fortunate enough to realize their beauty, and she writes about them in her book, putting them on the magical pedestal they deserve.
I saw on Amazon that a reviewer said this book would “have difficulty finding an audience.” This book includes American immigrants from Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Poland; a lesbian mentor in the form of Angel; a girl with a single-parent household; and more. Sounds like Tea’s reached out to a pretty wide audience to me.
Also, teeny tiny side note: This book has no romantic lead. For a YA book, that is very, very rare. Plenty of YA authors need to insert a romantic subplot before their novels can be published. I was relieved and refreshed to see Sophie too busy with magic to be kissing mediocre thirteen year-old boys (or girls).
I hold this book close to my heart, now. I hope you will, too.