When I’m matching middle school readers to books, my most successful handsell trick is to stage whisper to a seventh grader, “I’m giving this book to you, but honestly I would never give it to a sixth grader. If I put it in an elementary school library, I’d probably be asked not to come back!” That comment tends to turn heads and sell books faster than if I tucked vouchers for free Jolly Ranchers in the pages.
I can’t say that about every book—first because the trick would quickly lose its charm, and second because it isn’t true about most middle grades books. Fish Girl is one of those “just-for-us” middle school books; the publisher even gives it an ages 10-12 recommendation instead of the more customary ages 8-12 recommendation.
This spacious, spare, and briskly paced book tells the story of a nameless mermaid girl who is kept at an aquarium by Neptune. Neptune, in all his godly splendor, instructs Fish Girl to ham it up for the observers by playing hard-to-get: wave at them when they aren’t looking, peek at them just long enough to make them think they saw you, hide any time you see a camera, and above all else, make sure they come back for more.
Fish Girl can’t talk, but she does understand English, and most of the story is told through her narration. If anything, readers may take a few pages to figure out she’s the one telling this story from within because her voice is disembodied from the customary speech bubbles. This conceit of the voiceless narrator might be a little tired for adult readers, but it’s relatively under-explored territory for middle grade literature and it gives readers a concrete character trait to lock onto.
One day, a girl visits the aquarium and Fish Girl accidentally reveals more of herself than she intended. This girl returns to visit regularly in secret and treats Fish Girl as one would treat a friend, even though Fish Girl is unable to respond. This growing friendship leads Fish Girl to realize that Neptune isn’t exactly a king after all—and that’s not the only secret he’s keeping.
More sophisticated readers will quickly identify Neptune’s behaviors as abusive and manipulative, not in the evil stepfather way exactly, but more in the controlling boyfriend trope. Neptune reminds Fish Girl that he’s the only one that cares about her, and that without him she’d be nothing. He rewards her with stories when he thinks she’s been good for business and punishes her when there’s been a slow day. His character gives this book its edge that makes it less appealing and less comfortable for elementary school readers.
David Wiesner’s art is at its most splendid when it blurs the line between fantasy and reality like his story does. There’s a tremendous full page spread that shows Neptune’s full-house aquarium as a cross-section, with Neptune standing outside on the boardwalk, enticing would-be customers inside. Neptune has made half of his 3-story rowhouse a fish tank save for his small corner office and the other half is a visitor viewing area. This spread first invites readers to imagine what it would be like to be Fish Girl, swimming up and down the stairs of her home, sleeping in an underwater bed with her close friend Octopus, and avoiding windows during the day. This spread also lets us think about Neptune’s obsessive qualities and his deep desire to control and profit off of nature. My only complaint is that occasionally the use of blue watercolors and solid backgrounds without much visual texture to them makes the artwork feel a little (excuse the pun) washed out.
Aside from an ending that strains credulity, this is one of the strongest, multi-layered titles available for middle school-age readers this year.
by David Wiesner and Donna Jo Napoli
Clarion Books, 2017
Publisher Age Rating: 10-12