09 September 2010

Diving Deep into Mermaid Queen

Mermaid Queen, written by Shana Corey and illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham, is yet another shortlisted Cybils Non-Fiction Picture Book from last year. It’s a picture-book biography of the Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman. As the subtitle says, Kellerman “Swam Her Way to Fame, Fortune & Swimsuit History!” about a hundred years ago.

The book is big and colorful, with swirly and humorous artwork and lots of spot varnish on the exterior. This matches how the text portrays Annette Kellerman—as an underdog rebel, a convention-defier, spunky as all get out. What more does our culture want from a historical female?

Kellerman overcame an unidentifiable childhood illness to become a celebrated swimmer and diver whose “greatest achievements were freeing women from their oppressive bathing suits.” Okay, maybe that last part is a teensy anticlimactic compared to Marie Curie or Eleanor Roosevelt, but kids already have biographies about those women.

Mermaid Queen does a good job of laying out its sources, showing how high standards have risen in children’s publishing today. The back of the book cites the Australian biography The Original Million Dollar Mermaid, by Emily Gibson and Barbara Firth; the documentary film The Original Mermaid; newspaper articles; Kellerman’s own How to Swm; and her “unpublished autobiographical script treatment for the movie The Million Dollar Mermaid.”

And that’s when my historian’s cheek muscle began to twitch like Herbert Lom in a Pink Panther movie. How much of this story, I wondered, is based on contemporaneous documents, and how much is based on a memoir that was massaged for mass entertainment? After all, that’s what a Hollywood “script treatment” is supposed to do.

Most of the book’s quotations appear in the extensive Author’s Note on pages 42-4. The heart and climax of the book—Kellerman’s run-in with moral authorities in Boston in 1908—has just a few quotes, and they all come from her “My Story” script treatment. Corey tracked down newspaper articles, but didn’t quote from them. And I can’t help but suspect that the defiant and witty speeches the character makes on those pages of the book come from the Hollywood version.

Of course, a picture-book biography doesn’t have the responsibility or freedom to lay out sources the same way that a scholarly biography should. Mermaid Queen works very well in introducing kids to the intertwined life and legend of Annette Kellerman, and the world she came from and changed a little.

But in this year’s Cybils discussion, I found myself a little more impressed by another picture-book biography that had to start with sources not already well digested for public consumption.

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