Reviews: The Mermaid and the Shoe

The Mermaid and the Shoe by K.G. Campbell (Kids Can Press, 2014)

Mermaid books.  To be honest there aren’t all that many of them in picture books for children.   Oh, there are a few, but so few are good stories for young listeners fascinated by these fish-tailed gals.    Your original Little Mermaid story is hardcore Andersen:  tongues cut out, contemplated homicide, suicide and an oddly bizarre ending that can’t really claim to be happy.  Disney really had to change things up to make it a happy movie–and I’ve had to caution parents looking for the original story that it could be a bit of a shocker.   There’s a mermaid in Babar and Zephir  by Jean de Brunhoff, but she’s only in the story for a part of the adventure.  So the books that are kid-friendly are thin on the ground, and I’m delighted to discover this under the sea story that manages to not only be a great mermaid story, but the kind of story you want to read to any child, especially if they’re wondering about their own purpose and role in life.

When you think mermaid and you think shoes, you certainly don’t imagine the two would go together.  It’s like . . . fish and bicycles.  But in this story you’ll see why this is not the case at all.  Minnow is the youngest of King Neptune’s 50 daughters.  And unlike all her other beautiful, lyrical and accomplished sisters, Minnow doesn’t have anything she seems to be good at except asking all sorts of odd questions.  Her sisters don’t know what to make of her, and mean Calypso just calls her useless.  Until one day Minnow finds a red shoe and wonders what it is, and sets off on a journey to discover the answer.

Can you imagine not knowing what a shoe is for? Of course not! But for a footless mermaid who has never even seen a landperson, a shoe is a great mystery.  And for little Minnow, it’s a mystery she wants to solve.  When she discovers the truth, and sees a landmaid’s toes she’s bursting with news to share with her family.  She knows things, has discovered things and wants to share that knowledge with others.  And her father recognizes little Minnow as an explorer.  How awesome is that?  Our little mermaid discovers her purpose is as an intrepid explorer of the unknown!  No lovesick fish tale, no watery sea frolic with fish puns.  This is a mermaid tale that  will get kids thinking even as they enjoy the story.

And I shouldn’t neglect discussing the art! Award-sinning K. G. Campbell (creator of Lester’s Dreadful Sweaters and illustrator of  Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures by Kate DiCamillo) has given us a stunningly lovely book simply to look at. For the record, one of my favorite pages is actually the title page which has a two-page spread as though the viewer were looking upward at a ring of mermaids and seals.  What Campbell does with the subject matter is intriguing.  You realize all the mermaids are pale beings living in a fairly dark underwater environment.  Despite the mythical fantastic he brings to life in the illustrations, the rest of the scenes look like something out of a realistic undersea illustration.  The fish are all drawn to look like real fish rather than cartoonish representations of fish.  At first it’s possible to think the pictures are drab or undetailed,then you  realize how it frames the characters, and pulls your eyes where the artist wants them to be.  There’s a two page spread of Minnow finding the shoe, where you see an old sunken ruin in the water below, then golden bubbles of orangey jellyfish that get brighter as the move upward in the water, then there’s Minnow reaching for the bright red shoe.  The shoe is the brightest thing around–and by making it contrast so sharply with its surroundings, the artist invites the audience to feel Minnow’s wonder and excitement at finding this rare and mysterious object.


Lots of colors don’t enter the story until Minnow journey to a place near the shore and breaks the surface of the water.  Here we see the blues and yellows and reds in casual abundance. The warm and earthy brilliance contrasts nicely with Minnow’s own shadowed and murky blues and greys.  When Minnow tells her stories, the artist draws bubbles with the brilliant images of shore life, demonstrating how she brings that richness back with her.  Frankly little Minnow reminds me a bit of Frederic by Leo Lionni and how he conjures up stories and colors for the mice during the winter.  Like the poet-mouse, Minnow has a spectacular purpose in her community, one that isn’t fully appreciated until she shares her stories with them.  The author shifts from gorgeous two-page spreads to single page illustrations, to portrait style shots within a seaweed frame.  And no matter how many times I page through the book I still marvel at it.

The text quietly tells Minnow’s tale of search and discovery,  regaling readers with a character who doesn’t quite fit in, can’t do well the things that others can, but makes the effort to pursue her own questions.  Every librarian knows the best sorts of searches can start with a question no one’s thought to ask.  It’s the beginning of discovery.  This is a great read for encouraging kids to come up with their own questions about the world around them (though be prepared for what they might ask!).  It’s reassuring too that Minnow’s father recognizes the talent in his youngest daughter, and embraces it.  For kids to see that parental support in the story, well, it’s important.  (I do wonder about mean old Calypso and whether she ever had a change of heart).  In the end this is probably something I will have to buy for my daughter.

For mermaid lovers this is a great story to share, though it may be unexpected to the listener whose only experience is Disney’s technicolor movie version of The Little Mermaid.  Encourage the questions,  teach them how to start finding answers, and give them all the ability to pursue their sense of wonder.

Publisher: Kids Can Press

Publication Date: April 2014   

ISBN13:    9781554537716

Recommended for 3 years and up.

Comments Welcome!


About Stephanie Whelan

I'm a children's librarian with a life-long love of all things science fiction and fantasy.

Posted on June 13, 2014, in General Posts, Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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