The Little Mermaid is in theaters and in books during #Mermay 🪸

Cue hot mermaid summer with classic fairy tale returning as live-action Disney remake

With The Little Mermaid debuting this weekend, you know the obsession over merfolks will dominate the culture for the rest of the year, right?

Like most toddler girls, I was enthralled with Disney’s 1989 animated version of The Little Mermaid, the most famous fairy tale written by Hans Christian Andersen. Growing up in the coastal neighborhood of Rogers Park in Chicago, I imagined myself as a mermaid far too many times with beaches in walking distance.

But as much as I wanted to be Ariel, she didn’t look like me. She had long ketchup-red hair and over-animated blue eyes, and while under the sea she was just a mermaid, on land she was a young White woman.

This led to my parents looking high and low for Black mermaids. The search was fruitful with Sukey and the Mermaid. The 1992 book featured the first time I saw a Black mermaid.

The story is by children’s author Robert D. San Souci, who was known for bringing folktales to life. The book is beautifully illustrated by Brian Pinkney. In the story, a girl named Sukey has to do the back-breaking work on her family’s farm all day. Her stepfather is a “bossy, do-nothing” man, and her mother acts oblivious to Sukey’s suffering.

One day, Sukey seeks refuge by the sea. After singing a song about what she thought was a fictional mermaid, she realizes she summoned Mama Jo, a “beautiful, brown-skinned, black-eyed mermaid” adorned in gold jewelry along her seaweed green hair. Mama Jo notices Sukey’s sadness and offers to bring her undersea. Nobody is suffering there (except for Ariel, but that’s another story). So Sukey must decide if she wants to stay on land with her abusive family or find peace beneath the surface.

At the end, the author’s note reads that the folktale came from a recording called “The Mermaid” in Elsie Clews Parsons’ Folk-lore of the Sea Islands, South Carolina published in 1923 by the American Folklore Society. “It is one of the relatively few authenticated African-American folktales involving mermaids,” the note reads.

As you can tell, I have a deep interest in merfolk culture, particularly when it relates to the African diaspora. When Disney first announced Halle Bailey of Chloe x Halle fame would step into the fin of Ariel for the live-action film of The Little Mermaid, there was uproar because she was Black. At the time, I wrote a blog post about how the Disney film unintentionally perpetuated a White mermaid image that some people do not want to let go of, or acknowledge that communities around the world have similar legends.

The story was written by a Danish author, so the main character is presumably Danish, but it’s also a universal story that features the imaginary half-person, half-fish creatures who swim across the globe. Whether you like mermaids or not, the fact that this fairy tale has resonated for almost 200 years for generations is an extraordinary power for a story.

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What we’re highlighting

Penguin Random House joins lawsuit against school district

The largest book publisher in the U.S. partnered with PEN America, several authors, and several parents in suing a Florida school district over allegedly removing books from bookshelves that received public complaints. PEN America, the free speech foundation, claims Escambia County School District and School Board removed and restricted certain titles discussing race, racism, and LGBTQ identities, “some of which have been on the shelves for years—even decades.”

Indie publisher Brown Girls Books announces new CEO

The boutique run by authors ReShonda Tate and Victoria Christopher Murray has hired a new CEO. In an Instagram video, the founders introduced CEO Tanisha Tate, who is also ReShonda’s sister, as she promised to boost the business on behalf of the still-active authors. The publisher boasts a roster of over 40 authors, including reality star Gizelle Bryant and TV producer Stacey Evans Morgan.

Here are some summer reads featuring merfolks:

American Mermaid by Julia Langbein: An English teacher is surprised when her feminist novel becomes a best-seller. She soon finds herself in Los Angeles to capitalize on the book’s potential in becoming a screen adaptation. As her main character morphs from an “androgynous eco-warrior to a teen sex object in a clamshell bra,” karma seems to follow the teacher who tried to bring a mermaid to life.

The Pisces by Melissa Broder: Lucy is a doctoral student finishing the thesis she’s been working on for nine years when her boyfriend breaks up with her. To get back on track and nurse her broken heart, she accepts an invitation to dog-sit in Venice Beach. There, she falls in love with a merman and debates whether she should escape reality and follow him into his oceanic world. Book review on shelit.com.

Shallow Waters by Anita Kopacz: This story shows Yemaya, an Orïsha or a deity in the religion of Africa’s Yoruba people, as an enslaved woman in 19th century America not yet knowing her superpower. She searches for a man who sacrifices his own freedom for her to see freedom. On her journey, she grows into the powerful woman she was destined to become.

Skin of the Sea and Soul of the Deep by Natasha Bowen: These books focus on Simi, who serves as Mami Wata, the water goddess who collects the souls of those who die at sea and blesses their journeys back home. But she saves a living boy from the water, breaking the ancient decree. She has to make amends, but that journey becomes dangerous.

You can find book reviews on other mermaid-themed books such as:

Grown by Tiffany D. Jackson

The Seas by Samantha Hunt

A Song Below Water by Bethany C. Morrow

What we’re reviewing

Nikki Giovanni Talks About Libraries Supporting Readers on Earth and Mars

Poet and activist Nikki Giovanni joined Books in Bloom in Columbia, Maryland, to discuss the importance of libraries, including one in outer space.

The book festival’s headliner was introduced as someone who identifies as an “earthling” by Busboys and Poets founder Andy Shallat. This led to a conversation with Nikki discussing her work with libraries and her curation for a library on Mars.

A library was established in 2008 by NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander, thanks to the funding and development from The Planetary Society, where TV scientist Bill Nye is the CEO. The space shuttle left an encoded archival silica-glass mini-DVD on Mars and called it the Visions of Mars digital time capsule.

Check out the full blog post here

What we’re watching

Merpeople on Netflix follows the people who have turned cosplaying as a mermaid, merman, or merperson into a career or an expensive hobby. I’m on the fringes of the mermaid cosplay world, so please support my friends as they explain their transformations into the merpeople of their dreams.

What the plans are

The Mountain Words Festival in Crested Butte, Colorado, takes place during the Memorial Day weekend from May 25-28 with readings, workshops, kids’ events, panel discussions, and live theater. Ticket prices can be found here.

Where the opportunities are

Library of America is looking for someone interested in a publishing career for its Diverse Voices Editorial Fellowship. The full-time, two-year program will have this fellow work closely with the editorial and production team to develop and publish 20 new titles and dozens of reprints each year.

“Because I feel like, if I would have had a Black mermaid, that would have been insane, that would have changed my whole perspective, my whole life, my confidence, my self-worth. You’re able to see a person who looks like you, when you’re young? Some people are just like, oh, it’s whatever, because they’ve had it their whole life. It’s nothing to them. But it’s so important.” Halle Bailey, the star of The Little Mermaid, on representation in media

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]]> SHE LIT: Representation Matters With New 'Little Mermaid' 🧜🏾‍♀️