The Fish Princess.
Irene N. Watts. Illustrated by Steve Mennie.
Grades 3 and up / Ages 8 and up.
Before she learned to speak, she sang songs of wind-whipped waves, of gulls crying, of water lapping. Before she learned to walk, she swam, for she was a child of the sea. Shells whispered the secrets of the deep to her, and sea foam fastened necklaces of creamy pearls around her throat. She played in the water and was never afraid. But the villagers were afraid.
The Fish Princess is a beautiful, mystical tale in the tradition of Selkie tales, where a creature, neither completely of the sea or of the land, comes to live for a time with mortals. In this case, a fisherman retrieves a boat which drifts in to shore. Inside the boat, he finds a baby girl. Although the villagers are frightened, the fisherman takes her in, seeing her as a gift sent by the sea to comfort him in his old age. Although they have one another, none of the community will recognize the girl or include her in the rituals of their society. As she grows up, she sings of her longing for a friend, but she resists the lure of the sea and lives and works with her grandfather. At one point, she intercedes when the villagers are over-fishing, releasing a giant salmon and earning the villagers' further distrust and anger. As she nurses her grandfather in his last days, she fishes and receives not only a sufficient portion, but a gold circlet. When her grandfather dies, she fishes once more and draws forth the salmon, which when killed, becomes transformed into a youth with whom the Fish Princess returns to the sea.
With The Fish Princess, Irene N. Watts expands her already considerable writing talents to create the story of the unquestioning love between a fisherman and his "gift from the sea," a young girl who mysteriously arrives in an old wooden boat. Previous publications written by Watts include her plays, Goodbye Marianne; theater explorations for youth, Just a Minute: Ten Short Plays and Activities for your Classroom; and her various publications on children's parties and games, Great Theme Parties for Children. One of the distinguishing features of her work is her ability to create activities which are adaptable to a wide range of ages and abilities. In The Fish Princess, her expansiveness is equally evident. This tale is not for the very young but will be enjoyed by children and young adults who will respond to the beautiful writing and descriptive style. The story, possessing all of the elements of mystery and magic which characterize folk and fairy tales, will touch many as a result.
Young adults, in particular, many of whom are re-introduced to illustrated narratives through language arts courses, will appreciate the elements of exclusion and unfair societal distrust.
The Fish Princess, is illustrated by Steve Mennie, who is best known for his silkscreen exhibitions and postage stamp design. In this, his first book, he provides a powerful interpretation of Watt's tale. Mennie creates a beautiful, somber world. The sea is depicted in calm and storm, revealing a blend of colour and light which interpret the joy of water and waves. The villagers are work-worn and weatherbeaten, swathed in dark fabrics. The illustrations are soft and mysterious, with many of the figures turned away or positioned only partially on the page.
The talents of those two artists combine beautifully in The Fish Princess, adding a lyrical narrative and artistic interpretation to the imaginative literature of the sea.
Jennifer Johnson is a children's librarian in Ottawa.
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Copyright © 1997 the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.
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