February 21, 2013

Real Mermaids Don't Wear Toe Rings

by Hélène Boudreau
Sourcebooks Jabberwocky
208 pp.
Ages 9+

With the third book, Real Mermaids Don't Need High Heels, in Hélène Boudreau's Real Mermaids series scheduled for release this month and after meeting the lovely Hélène Boudreau at the TD Canadian Children's Book Awards in November, I realized it was time to explore this series of books. Shamefully, I must confess to "mermaid" prejudices which, like all prejudices, were completely unfounded. As a teacher-librarian who has a multitude of little girls asking me for princess and mermaid books, I expected Hélène Boudreau's books to be weakly plotted stories with pretty covers in pink and purple, perfect for ages 3-5. Nah uh. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Instead what I discovered is a series of perfect middle-grade reads with complex plotting and lots of "Aha!" moments as connections and revelations twist and enhance storylines. The covers may have beautiful shimmering tones of turquoise, green and pink but these are hardly Disney's mermaid books. And Hélène Boudreau always ends her Real Mermaids books with a recipe courtesy of one of the characters. (The chocolately treat in Real Mermaids Don't Wear Toe Rings has become a regular after-dinner dessert in our household.)

Real Mermaids Don't Wear Toe Rings introduces almost-fourteen-year-old Jade Baxter, a plus-size teen who lives with her engineer father in Port Toulouse, a town on the Atlantic Ocean. Jade's mother, Michaela, drowned at her Gran's cottage on Talisman Lake less than a year ago. Even though she has the support of her dad and her fashionista best friend, Cori, Jade is finding that going through puberty without a mom is awkward, if not farcical. Imagine getting your period (horrors) while trying on a bathing suit (least favourite shopping for most women) but being unable to tell your best friend because you'd lied about getting it two years earlier (peer pressure, you know) and having to meet your dad at the drug store to pick out an assortment of feminine hygiene products while the boy you've always crushed on, Luke Martin, is trying to chat you up. Oh wait, did I mention that when you get home to take a warm bath with some soothing Epsom salts, you fall asleep and have your legs morph into a tail? They may always tell tweenies that "it's wonderful being a girl" but let's face it: puberty sucks, and even more so for Jade.
      Rubbing my eyes, blinking away the sting, trying to get out, shocked by what I saw breaking through the surface of the water.
     Then, I was yelling for Dad, he was crashing through the door.
     And I had a tail. A shimmering, scale-covered, slimy, wet tail.
     Freak-of-nature suddenly took on a whole new meaning.
(pg. 40)
Luckily Dad is working very hard to be both parents to Jade and is there for her, even having to share the startling news with her that Mom had been a mermaid too. The big question - how could her mom have drowned if she was a mermaid? - sadly has no answer. Sadder still is the fact that Jade cannot share any of this with Cori (who is currently very busy hanging out with snooty Lainey Chamberlain in the hopes of getting Mrs. Chamberlain to mentor her in fashion design) or Gran or Luke who surprisingly seems to be chattier to her than before he and his family had gone on a lengthy boating trip.

While taking a break by the canal and lock that link the lake with the ocean, a scuffle in the water has Jade connecting with her mother who tells Jade, in the strange language of sharp ringing sounds, that she is being held by Freshies, mer-people who have been jailed in freshwater Talisman Lake by the Mermish Council. Desperate to free her mother from the clutches of the Freshie leaders, Finalin and his wife Medora, Jade and her father learn everything and anything they can about mer-people in the hopes of bringing Michaela home.

I won't give too much away here, as I'll be reviewing Real Mermaids Don't Hold Their Breath and this month's new release, Real Mermaids Don't Need High Heels, in the next few days. Suffice it to say, the humour, the storylines, Jade's pure 14-year-old voice and a startling ending to Book 1 will have you reading the second book asap, just as I did. So do yourself a favour and order Books 1, 2 and 3 at the same time. It'll be worth it.

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