FilLit Series: Is it a Mermaid?


You can’t help but to be sucked into the enchanting tropical seascape which pours out of the pages of Candy Gourlay’s new book, Is it a Mermaid? Magically illustrated by Francesca Chessa, the picture book teleports the reader to the tropical landscape of the Philippines. The beach bahay kubo, the wooden bangka boat and the pure blue waters coupled with a lush green tropical backdrop is unmistakably the Philippines.

The story centres around two characters who discover a strange creature on the tropical beach which they know is a dugong. But the dugong insists she is a beautiful mermaid, and to prove it, she shows them her mermaid tail and sings them a mermaid song. Though on the surface, a simple premise, there is so much to unpick in the 32-page encounter between the children and the dugong. The story is about kindness, acceptance and ultimately friendship. It’s layered with subtle messages without appearing too forceful or preachy. It shows how friendship can blossom when we let go of labels or ideas of what one is or isn’t, it about the sensitivity to feelings and respect, identity and emotion. There is something deeply profound in the sentence “The Dugong tried to hide her tears but her flippers were too short” 

The book folds in somewhat an open yet magical ending, as the dugong swims away into the sun kissed ocean, a beautiful golden mermaid tail glows in the burning orange waters, the children walk back into their wooden hut proclaiming their love for the mermaid, it’s a lovely end note. Throughout, the book is laced with Candy’s infections humour, we have read and reread the story over and over, in our heads and out loud, and each time we discover something new, either in Gourlay's words or the stunning illustrations by Chessa.

Growing up in the Philippines, Candy Gourlay wondered why all the books she ever loved only featured pink-skinned children who lived in snow-covered worlds that didn’t resemble her steamy, tropical home in Manila. ‘Is it a Mermaid’ bring the much-needed representation of characters of colour into the predominantly ‘pink-skinned’ world of children’s picture books.

We adore Candy Gourlay, and if you don’t already, you will too.