Aquicorn Cove

In which winged hippocamps are indicators of a healthy nature.

Aquicorn Cove, a sweet graphic novel by New Zealander Kay O’Neill, uses the mythological figures of the winged hippocamp and the unicorn to show how to care for nature.

Aquicorn Cove, by K. O’Neill

The protagonist, Lana, returns with her father to her family home in the small fishing village of Abalone to help her aunt Mae clean up after a storm. They are grieving the loss of her mother, a fisherwoman who died in a storm off the coast of Aquicorn Cove. While picking up litter on the beach, she finds an injured creature: a small seahorse with wings and a horn (an Aquicorn). She takes it home and cares for it.

Meanwhile, Mae is suffering from the loss both of her sister, and of her former true-love, a being named Aure, who lives in an underwater coral city and who had saved her from drowning in a storm.

Mae and Aure had fallen out over fishing practices: Mae was using plastic nets that were trapping the aquicorns that protected Aure’s reef.

What follows is a story about sustainability and balance. Mae comes to the realisation that she must return to former sustainable fishing practices, using nets of natural fibres that allow the aquicorns to slip through. Lana learns to accept her mother’s loss and to channel her emotions into caring for nature.

It’s a lovely book, gently told. The aquicorns are enormously appealing, in the way of unicorns and the flying horse Pegasus: offering the sense of a mythical creature that can become a friend, and that can symbolise the beauty and fragility of nature. Aure’s coral kingdom, while reminiscent of myths about the lost city of Atlantis, also offers an image of the effects of human predation of the ocean. Her love story with Mae shows a reconciliation between land and sea, and makes the point, so common in ecocritical works, that nature is a better guardian of humanity than the other way around.

Aure and the Aquicorns rescue Mae from drowning.

Aquicorn Cove is explicitly educational, and concludes with an information section providing guidance on biodiversity in the oceans and ideas about sustainability. The associated board game allows players to work together to look after nature.

Caring for nature is hugely important to O’Neill’s work: see for instance the Tea Dragon Society series, about cute dragons whose horns and antlers produce tea leaves, and the art of caring for them (tea-dragon husbandry): sustainability, mythology, nurturing, and tea make for a delightful brew. (As a keen tea-drinker myself, I find this idea appealing!). Themes of friendship, empathy, diversity and environmental justice pervade this gently inclusive novel and its associated game which encourages readers and players to think about how to grow their dragon and harvest their tea.

Why are figures like aquicorns and tea dragons so often used in this way? Partly it is their hybridity (part seahorse, part unicorn, part hippocampus, part dragon, part deer), which allows readers from many backgrounds to identify with them. Perhaps too, because of their mythical qualities they mediate between human and animal worlds, offering a safe(-ish) way to think about human impact on the natural world. O’Neill’s new book, The Moth Keeper, about ‘a nocturnal girl who wants to help her community but can’t help dreaming about the sun’ looks likely to continue this trend, drawing together ideas about identity, the natural world, and doing so by creating a new mythology for young readers.

— Elizabeth Hale

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