Is it a Mermaid?
Otter-Barry Books, 2018
32pp., hbk., RRP $A24.99
It has been suggested that the origin of mermaids comes from sailors mistaking ‘sea-cows’ or dugongs for these fanciful creatures and letting their imaginations and desires fill in the gaps. But not so for Benji, who, with his sister Bel spots a dugong on the beach. He knows exactly what it is but dugong disagrees, insisting she is not an “it”, but is, indeed, a mermaid – a beautiful mermaid.
She shows the children her tail, which Benji insists is a dugong’s tail; sings to them which hurts Benji’s ears; and even demonstrated how gracefully she could swim in the sea. While Bel wishes she, too, could be a mermaid, Benji refuses to give up his criticism, adamant to prove the creature is a dugong. But when he calls her a “sea cow”, she is very hurt and Benji suddenly realises how sharp and cruel his words and attitude have been. Can he make amends?
The word ‘dugong’ comes from the Malay for mermaid as 17th and 18th European sailors saw them or the first time in South East Asian waters and while this story is set in the Philippines, they are also found in warm Australian waters too. So, as well as being a story about the power of words and how hurtful they can be even when that is not the intention, this is also a story that puts a focus on these elusive, endangered creatures more closely related to elephants than cows. Young children could create a comparison between mermaids and dugongs while older students might investigate their habits and habitats more fully, perhaps even getting involved in Project Seagrass.
The sustainability of the environment and its inhabitants is an important part of the primary curriculum and this is the perfect introduction to a less familiar endangered species that could be added to those already studied.