Eisner Award-winning Nashville artist Janet K. Lee joins forces with comic book writer Amy Chu in Sea Sirens, the opening book in a promising new graphic novel series for young readers. The book, subtitled A Trot & Cap’n Bill Adventure, was inspired by Vietnamese folk and fairy tales, as well as by The Sea Fairies, a children’s underwater fantasy tale originally published in 1911 by L. Frank Baum.
Baum is better known as the author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and its sequels, but The Sea Fairies has been largely forgotten. In eight fast-paced chapters, Chu and Lee breathe new life — and add a fluffy, one-eyed feline sidekick — to Baum’s stories about a girl nicknamed Trot and her undersea adventures.
In this brisk story, Trot is a Vietnamese American surfer. Cap’n Bill — her cat, a stray she once found on the beach — regularly joins her on her surfboard. Trot’s mother is consumed by work, but the girl’s beloved grandfather is a consistent presence; he often fishes while she surfs. But dementia has creeped in (he sometimes forgets “where he is or who he is”), and one day he wanders from the shore. After the police find him and return him to the family’s home, Trot’s mother puts an end to further fishing and surfing expeditions. Grandpa and Trot are both well and truly grounded.
Trot is crushed but not daunted. A rule-breaker and mischief-maker at heart, she sneaks out with Cap’n Bill the next day, leaving Grandpa alone, but the two wipe out on the largest wave Trot has ever seen. Her frantic search for Bill under the water leads her to Clia and Merla, two sea sirens on a mission to chart underwater territories. Just as serpents were about to attack the mermaids, Trot learns, Cap’n Bill appeared and scared off their enemy. To return the favor, Clia gives Trot and Bill the ability to breathe underwater. She also takes them to the mermaids’ underwater “queendom,” led by Queen Aquareine, and gives Trot a magical necklace that allows her to understand her cat.
The sea sirens are beguiled by the cat, whom they deem the Serpent Hunter — and their new hero. A fanciful banquet follows, where wide-eyed Trot and her pet meet such creatures as Ambassador Gadus of the Eastern Codfish Clan and see such things as a Caribbean Conch Choir. To her relief, Trot discovers that Grandpa followed her and Bill when they left home. He is a surprise guest at the feast.
It is here in these grand underwater spreads — with banquets, feasting, and a whole host of sea creatures — that Lee’s fine-lined, detailed drawings especially delight. Her palette is dazzling. Rich jewel colors dominate: vivid emeralds, coppers, and deep blues. She varies the size of her panels to pace the action, and the use of diagonal panel lines quickens the pace and catches the eye. The occasional use of full-spread illustrations throughout the book amps up the drama in scenes such as Trot’s first view of the sea sirens, as well as the first time she lays eyes on the elaborate under-sea banquet.
Chu occasionally — and seamlessly — incorporates Vietnamese dialogue into the story, as Trot, her immigrant grandfather, and her cat spend several days and nights in this richly imagined underwater world. “Xin chào!” Grandpa says in greeting to the sea serpents he meets after wandering away from the sea sirens, who are doting on Bill. He is captured by the serpents, the sirens’ longstanding enemies, and Trot and her new friends learn the truth about the infamous leader of the serpents, King Anko. Trot brokers peace between the two warring kingdoms.
The book’s quick pace keeps the action moving and the characters are charismatic. Even irritable Cap’n Bill (“What do you mean, ‘just a cat’?” Bill asks Trot, once he can finally be understood) endears himself to readers with his decision to stay with Trot, though the sea serpents had offered him the title of “first ever Royal Cat” and the promise of mackerel every day. “I love you more than mackerel itself,” he tells her.
This tale will capture the imagination of fantasy fans, especially young readers fond of cats. (Who wouldn’t want to be able to converse with their pet?) And to those readers left breathless by the dramatic ending, in which Trot, Bill, and Grandpa fly back to the shore in an iridescent balloon made of the garbage humans leave behind, the sequel-promising words on the final page — “To be continued” — will leave them with a smile.
Julie Danielson, co-author of Wild Things! Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature, writes about picture books for Kirkus Reviews, BookPage, and The Horn Book. She lives in Murfreesboro and blogs at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.