Thursday, December 20, 2007

To Catch a Mermaid by Suzanne Selfors

I've been meaning to post my thoughts on TO CATCH A MERMAID by Suzanne Selfors for some weeks now. I don't usually read children's novels and I probably will demur in the future, except for young adult. I did my homework on this novel and read a bunch of other reviews out there, and none of them are in the least bit negative.

The writing itself is great. It's about a boy named Boom Broom who brings home a wild baby mermaid (actually more like a toddler) from a reject seafood bucket. The merbaby brings a curse that Boom must break in order to save his sister. The merbaby can also grant wishes. His sister promptly falls in love with the cranky merbaby, and refuses to be parted from it. Adding angst to the story is that before the start of the novel, Boom's mother was carried away by a twister. Boom is an appealing character, despite his struggles with greed. There is almost no violence in the book.

The beginning of the novel is quite humorous, with crazy situations such as Boom's sister Mertyle wishing for some buttery corn, then Boom going outside and presto! The field next door is filled with buttery corn growing on the stalk, ready to eat. Mertyle cannot seem to wish for anything practical, but there doesn't seem to be any limit to her wishes, so why should she bother?

The high point of the story comes when Mertyle contracts ich from the merbaby. Anyone who has ever kept a fish knows about fish ich, which is spelled ick in this book. For a while it is quite funny, but after this part, the book took a turn for me. I realize that Boom was concerned for his sister, but from then on, the story was too much of a downer, in my opinion.

One problem that authors have in writing children's lit is how to separate the child from the parent. It must be done, because any responsible parent would prevent their child from having dangerous adventures. Harry Potter and Tom Sawyer were both orphans. Huck's father was a drunken drifter. Many children's novels simply take place in boarding schools. In this novel, Boom just can't count on the important people or institutions in his life, including:

• His father, who developed agoraphobia after the twister carried away Boom's mother, and keeps himself locked in the attic in case another twister comes. He does manage to bestir himself toward the end and help his children, but he's never exactly inspiring.

He announced that the twister would return, then he locked himself in his attic studio and asked for weather updates through the keyhole. Except for his dashes to the bathroom, or an occasional appearance in the kitchen to obtain something to eat, he had rarely been seen since. The world beyond the front porch had proven itself to be unpredictably dangerous, and Mr. Broom had decided to avoid it entirely.

• School, for the principal is a sadistic meanie who is so keen to catch kids getting in trouble that she keeps a telescope in her office so she can spy on the kids in the playground. However, I'm willing to give the author a pass on this one, because mocking schoolteachers has a long and glorious tradition in kid's lit, possibly beginning with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

• The Church, which was so awful that Boom cannot dredge up a single positive memory of his dead mother taking him church.

He knew that Winger would be at church, suffering through a long, boring service in a starched-up shirt and a tie. Then he'd sing off-key in the choir's back row. Boom used to go to church with Mrs. Broom. She always stuffed her purse with hard candies, to help Boom get through the blah, blah, blahs that never made much sense. Why was everyone so worried about the next life when there was so much to worry about in this one?

• God, who doesn't seem answer prayers. However, Thor might.

"All Mighty Thor, God of Direct Viking Descendents, show us your mercy and send us wind."

Mr. Jorgenson stood and raised his arms.

"Help us, Mighty Thor."

Boom didn't care who answered their plea -- be it a Viking god, the god of Winger's church, or a green menace from the sea. Was it too much to ask for the universe to look kindly upon him just one time? One stinking time?

The people who do help Boom include the oddball members of the Sons of the Vikings, a flaky fish store owner and the fisherman who let Boom rummage in his fish bucket. It's meant to be whimsical, I think. Most of the other adults are greedy, apathetic or just plain evil.

If I had read this when I was twelve years old, that quote about the afterlife would have really bothered me. Why would you want to bring angst to the child of a Christian family? (I'm assuming the author was writing about a Christian church, since the description fits Christian churches.) Do you write for children because you love them, or do you have other reasons? The prayers to Thor bothered me as well, but at least it fit into the whole "Sons of the Vikings" storyline. The anti-church/afterlife statement sort of came in out of nowhere. It seemed like editorializing to me. If I had been reading for pleasure, it would have been the point at which I would have put the book down.

It is possible, I suppose, that the author was merely careless and meant no harm. The second book (for there appears to be room for a sequel) will tell if this is so, if any more such statements appear.

That's not the only thing that bothered me about this novel. We all hear laments about the decline of reading in children. If this book represents today's children's literature, then I can only say, "Who can blame them?" This book was hard to get through. There's no rousing adventure, little that uplifts. The final struggle dragged on and on and was filled with despair. The ending, while happy enough, was more of a relief than anything else. Even Shrek was more uplifting than this novel. The theme in Shrek is the classic beauty lies within story. The theme for this novel? Maybe something like, "Life is tough, kid. Get used to it."


I spent a few weeks sitting on this review because the author was really quite lovely, and when she sent me a copy, she even autographed it. In the end, I decided to go with the adage that "a bad review is better than no review." Maybe she will find something helpful in the honest perspective of a reader who was really looking forward to this book, and who ultimately felt disappointed by it. Maybe some of you will want to purchase it in order to read it for yourself.

In any case, I have decided that in the future, I will only accept review copies from publishers or publicists. I love being in touch with authors, but I need a sense of detachment -- at least at first -- if I'm going to review their books. I have already adjusted my "about" post to reflect this policy.


Chris, The Book Swede said...

Interesting review. I obviously haven't read this book, so I can't really comment, but I found the Thor comment quite funny. Whimsical was the right word there.

I can see how the anti-Church comments could be upsetting, though.

Well done, btw, you're worth thousands more than me :D

The Book Swede

Anonymous said...

It sounds to me like the author may have an anti-Christianity agenda, and that doesn't seem like an appropriate thing to be pushing in a mainstream children's book. I may be wrong, of course, since I haven't read the book and can only go on the passage you quoted.

I don't believe in censorship, but I do think that in books for kids writers have to be particularly careful of the messages they send since kids' opinions aren't formed and they aren't as discriminating as adults.

Anonymous said...

I forgot to add that I really like the premise of the book!

Tia Nevitt said...

I did too, Raven.

I'm glad you said what you did about kid's opinions. I was going to say something similar, but I'm glad you said it instead.

Tia Nevitt said...

Oops, I forgot. Chris, I would doubt any sort of blog "worth" tool. Also, I was glad to read your opinion because you are always fair and I know that our religious views are rather opposite.

John (Grasping for the Wind) said...

Tia, I noticed that on the google reader friends tool, that you are using my old rss feed. the new one is

I promise, it will look a whole lot prettier and be easier to read.

Have a merry Christmas.

Maria said...

Bravo--for a review well-done, difficult though it was to write!

CaroleMcDonnell said...

As a former sunday school teacher, I can say that some part of the church service would be a bit much for some kids but many churches tend to have children's church or a sunday school that is usually quite fun for kids. Haven't read the book but I'm assuming the author probably is assuming churches now are like churches used to be.

Good comment about the angst. Why tell a kid life is full of stuff to worry about?

Tia Nevitt said...

It was the afterlife statement that bothered me more than the dreariness of church. But I agree with you. My daughter loves Sunday School and so do the kids next door. It's just not like it was years ago.

Claire said...

I don't know why that afterlife comment would upset you. I also don't see how it could be part of any agenda of any kind. It's a book. If your child cannot handle reading a single sentence in a single book that says something vaguely negative about the afterlife then YOU didn't raise her/him the right way. So. Stop. Your. Damn. Whining.

Tia Nevitt said...

My goodness!

CaroleMcDonnell said...

My goodness, indeed! -C