Mermaids, mythical moments, and the power of acceptance: Julián is a Mermaid

One of the nicest things about working in the Our Mythical Childhood project is looking in my office pigeonhole to see what interesting books have come in.  This morning it was this lovely picture book: Julián is a Mermaid, by Jessica Love.

Julián is a Mermaid, by Jessica Love

In it, a little boy named Julián is obsessed with mermaids.  He reads about them on the train, he imagines himself as one when he goes swimming, and he dresses up as one while his abuela (grandmother) is out of the room.

When his grandmother comes back to find Julián wearing a headdress from a potted plant and a flower arrangement and posing with her curtains as a fishtail, she frowns for a moment.  She then disappears for a moment, comes back dressed up herself and gives Julián a special necklace to complete his outfit, then takes him for a walk through the city streets, where they join a parade . . .  for mermaids.

It’s a moving moment, of acceptance and understanding, and of an adult making the effort to integrate a child into the community he wants to be part of.  Being a mermaid is of course a metaphor for thinking about identity, about gender roles, about finding one’s place in the world, and about facilitating that for children.  Jessica Love’s beautiful book encapsulates important ideas about difference and about love, acceptance, and integration.  I won’t show any of the images: you can find the book yourself and enjoy the discoveries within the way I did.

The necklace of acceptance

Children’s literature these days is doing important work thinking about empowerment, identity and acceptance.  It encourages empathy and understanding, and Julián is a Mermaid is an excellent example of a text that draws one in, to achieve the difficult feat of walking in someone else’s (mermaid) shoes.  Looking at how Love captures the play of emotions across Julián’s face as his grandmother leaves the room to get the necklace for him, I found myself becoming this little boy for a moment.  What would happen if she didn’t accept him?  What would he do, what would he become?  (Where would he go?  How would he manage?)  Thank goodness for grandmothers might be the subtext of this book, and the relief and joy I felt when she returns, bearing the necklace of acceptance, was palpable.

The parade Julián and his abuela join is the Coney Island Mermaid Parade, in Coney Island, New York.  I looked it up.  It celebrates the beginning of summer, has been held annually for 36 years, and looks like a lot of fun

 

Like so many parades, it’s an expression of the carnivalesque, of the acceptance and joy of difference, of creativity, of the mythical spirit within us all.

The power of momentary mythicalness

I’ve used the word moment a lot in this little piece, because I think Julián is a Mermaid is a book about the power of moments, about their power to give expression to the rest of our lives.  Children’s literature, folktales, fairytales and myths are full of such moments, when the imaginary comes into contact with, and transforms, the real.  At the moment of the story Julian is a Mermaid.  Who knows if he will be one all his life, or if the desire is a momentary part of the fleeting fluid magic of childhood imagination?  Like all good picture books, Julián is a Mermaid leaves the question open, to powerful and moving effect.

 

–Elizabeth Hale

 

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Myths on the Move–Our Mythical Animation . . .

 

Our Mythical Childhood went to Greenwich University in June, to the Children and Youth on the Move conference, hosted by the Children’s History Society.  The theme was movement, and so we talked about the ways that animators mobilise classical myth in their work for children.

Sonya Nevin showed how she and Steve Simons move myth in their Panoply animations of Greek vases.  We were privileged to see their animation of the Sappho Vase for the National Museum of Poland.

Anna Mik showed us how Walt Disney played with mermaid myths in the 1933 Silly Symphony cartoon, King Neptune.  You can read her Our Mythical Childhood survey entry on King Neptune here.

Hanna Paulouskaya showed us how Soviet animators such as Aleksandra Shezhko-Blotskaya used classical myth to move around the land as part of a national narrative.

And I talked about how the Australian animation, The Deepmoves myth underwater, using classical myths to appeal to an international audience.

Questions and discussion took us around the world, showing once again how myth functions both locally and universally, and to what ends  We talked about the rights of the mermaid, about what a siren really looks like, and what they really get up to.  We talked about how myth is put to use, encouraging Soviet schoolchildren to travel, for instance, or connecting Australian viewers to a wider world of mystery and story.  Sonya showed us how children move myth to their own ends, through the activities she and Steve give them–making their own shields and vases, for instance, and incorporating them in their own stories and mythology.  

The conference in general was emotionally moving, looking at how children move (or are forced to move) around the world, and also about how children’s culture moves through social changes, and how children move culture on, transforming and reshaping adult ideas for new generations.   Putting animation and mythology into these contexts, it is clear that mythology moves as culture moves, offering useful ways to frame children’s experiences and the way that reception is framed in its turn.

— Elizabeth Hale

 

 

 

 

 

Ordinary Mermaids: H2O Just Add Water

This week, I talked at the Childrens Media Symposium at the University of the Sunshine Coast. Subject:  H2O: Just Add Water, a popular TV series featuring teenage mermaids, filmed not far from here (in Australian terms),… 

H20: Just Add Water, is a suburban-beachside-teen-comedy-fantasy show  that screened from 2006 to 2010 on Australian TV and around the world.  In it, three teenage girls (proper Emma, wild-girl Rikki, and girl-next-door Cleo) are transformed into mermaids when they swim in a mysterious pool during the full moon.

Gold_Coast_skyline
Gold Coast–Just add mermaids By Petra [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Following this, they become part-time mermaids.  Whenever they get wet, they transform instantly into a mermaid.  If they want to avoid discovery (and they do), it becomes difficult to wash dishes, have showers go to pool parties held by the popular kids, hold down a part-time job feeding dolphins at Seaworld . . .  Emma, a serious competitive swimmer, has to give up her career.

H20: Just Add Water is filmed on Australia’s Gold Coast, a beachside tourist destination, with many theme parks, hotels, and a glitzy property-development culture.  Alongside is a languid suburban lifestyle, with which a coastal hippie mysticism co-exists.  The main threat facing the girls, is the threat of discovery, of being turned into museum exhibits, or scientific experiments.

Sea_world_australia
Sea World..  Just where you’d think a mermaid would have an after-school job . . .

Various villains and ne’er-do-wells seem determined to unmask the girls.  There’s Zane, the black-shirt wearing troubled rich-kid, his mean-girl girlfriend Miriam, and the bombshell grant-getting scientist, Dr Denman, who stumbles on their secret and seeks to monetize their magical properties.  For people like them, and Zane’s property-developer father, the magical powers of Mako Island, the place where the girls come into their mermaid-hood, are also up for grabs.  Environmental themes loosely pervade this series: the mermaids use their power to protect nature from over-fishing and over-development.  Indeed the girls have magical powers, which come in handy.  With the power of thought, Cleo can move water; Emma can freeze it; Rikki can heat it up.  Working individually or together, they use their powers to solve problems, avoid discovery, or defeat the bad guys.

Almost every culture has a mermaid figure.  From the sirens of Greek mythology to the Cameroonian Jengu, to the Little Mermaid of Danish lore, to the Aboriginal Yawk-Yawk, to the Siren of Warsaw, these figures–half-woman, half-fish or other sea-creature, symbolize the power of nature, and the power of femininity.

H20: Just Add Water plays with those themes.  Once a month, when the moon is full, one of the girls sees its reflection in water and goes into an altered state.  Controlled Emma starts feverishly kissing boys.  Shy Cleo commands the attention of every boy in the neighbourhood when she suddenly has the exquisite singing voice of a mythical Siren.  Rambunctious Rikki starts setting fire to things with her touch.

In these episodes, which are scattered through more everyday, sit-com-like episodes, we see the show’s attempt to deal with matters of femininity.  A mysterious older lady, Miss Chatham, herself a former mermaid, explains the mysteries of the full moon, and gives hints about mermaid-lore.  From the beginning of their transition, the girls are inducted into a set of feminine mysteries: submerging into magical water in the chamber of the volcanic  island, is of course highly symbolic of femininity.

There are not many allusions made to classical mermaids in the show.  Those that do appear, come when one or other of the characters does a little research in the subject.  For the most part, H2O: Just Add Water offers a mermaid myth bolted on to a suburban teen sitcom.

In some ways, it would be unfair to expect much more from a show like this, created deliberately with an international audience in mind, drawing on the relative cultural anonymity of the Gold Coast, with its resemblance to Miami and other coastal resort cultures[1].  Certainly, expecting H2O to provide an in-depth exploration of Australian myths, is a bridge too far, and makers of Australian content for children often wrestle with the market-trimming challenges that cultural specificity cause.

Which may be why the show’s mermaid myths do not go much further than to express a general sense of girl-power, in which mermaid tails help you swim extra fast and rescue handsome boys in distress, and in which magical powers help you freeze your arch-rival in her tracks.

The lyrics to H2O’s theme song confirm the anodyne dream like this:

Cause I’m no ordinary girl

I’m from the deep blue underworld

Land or sea

I’ve got the power if I just believe[2]

And there we have the secret to the show: a promise of extraordinariness, delivered in an ordinary manner; promising access to a fantasy world for girls, simply by believing, showing that myth, however gently or simply delivered, is just around the corner.  Despite the promises, Cleo, Rikki, and Emma, are ordinary girls–and therein lies their power.

 – – Elizabeth Hale

[1] See Anna Potter, Susan Ward: H2O: Just Add Branding: Producing High-Quality Children’s Drama for Multi-Channel Environments. Media International Australia, November 2009.

[2] Kate Alexa, ‘No Ordinary Girl,’ Lyrics