MMGM and #IMWAYR: Plain Jane and the Mermaid!

I'm back again with another graphic novel review for you all, and I'm so excited to share this book—so let's do it!

Middle Grade:

Plain Jane and the Mermaid

Written and illustrated by Vera Brosgol
Graphic novel · 2024
Recommended by Kellee Moye and Kasey Giard

· · · The publisher says: · · ·

From Anya's Ghost and Be Prepared author Vera Brosgol comes an instant classic graphic novel that flips every fairy-tale you know on its head, and shows one girl's crusade for the only thing that matters―her own independence.

Jane is incredibly plain. Everyone says so: her parents, the villagers, and her horrible cousin who kicks her out of her own house. Determined to get some semblance of independence, Jane prepares to propose to the princely Peter, who might just say yes to get away from his father. It’s a good plan!

Or it would’ve been, if he wasn’t kidnapped by a mermaid.

With her last shot at happiness lost in the deep blue sea, Jane must venture to the world underwater to rescue her maybe-fiancรฉ. But the depths of the ocean hold beautiful mysteries and dangerous creatures. What good can a plain Jane do?

· · · · · ·

Seeing Kasey Giard's review of this book last week is what spurred me to start reading it the minute my pre-order arrived, rather than letting it linger on my shelves for eons—and I'm so glad I didn't wait!

If you're not familiar with Vera Brosgol, she's an immensely accomplished author-illustrator and a pioneer of the graphic novel world. I checked, and her phenomenal first graphic novel, Anya's Ghost, came out all the way back in 2011, not long after Raina Telgemeier's Smile first opened the graphic novel floodgates in 2010. Since then, Brosgol's published three phenomenal picture books, illustrated one more, and put out two more graphic novels—Be Prepared in 2018, and this book, Plain Jane and the Mermaid, mere days ago! I pre-ordered this book entirely based on name recognition, and sure enough, it's a cut above pretty much any other graphic novel you can pick up. Brosgol's work truly is worth the wait.

Probably my favorite thing about this book is its themes—this book is one of those great reminders that MG stories have lessons adults of any age need to hear. The story explores what it means to be judged based on one's appearance and not on one's character, and how that splits society into groups of people who are respected, and people who are not. Then it takes this a step further by pointing out how even people deemed "attractive" (and therefore worthy) suffer in such a system—nobody wants to be appreciated only for looking good, and not for all the other deep and complex things about them. It's not just Jane who struggles under the weight of beauty standards in this story. The themes are really, really layered, and Brosgol vulnerably shares in an author's note how they connect to her own struggles with body image, as well as how traditional fairy tales and fantasy stories so often adhere to the idea that "appearance is everything."

To be honest, I think graphic novels in general use appearance as shorthand for goodness and worth—characters are cute, and we extrapolate from the cuteness to conclude that they are wonderful people. So it feels alarmingly groundbreaking to have a character like Jane who isn't designed from the ground up to meet beauty standards, and to have her as the protagonist who we look in the eye on every single page of the book. What's especially awesome is that Jane's appearance may be called "plain" by others, but her personality is anything but. She is a freaking genius of an adventurer, and her quick thinking saves her and the other characters from danger more times than I can count. She's incredibly brave, pushing past her fears and insecurities to literally go to the bottom of the ocean to rescue someone. And she's a truly loving human being too. Characters in the story seem to think no one could ever love Jane, romantically or otherwise, but seriously, y'all, we should be dreaming of romantic partners like Jane. Get yourself someone who would save you from the bottom of the ocean.

I have way too much more to praise about this book. It's clear that Brosgol spent years of careful, thoughtful labor crafting this story, because it's way more complex, rich, and tightly plotted than the fairly straightforward cover might suggest. Jane's home aboveground, with her mansion and the townsfolk who make fun of her and the mysterious woman who helps her out, is as richly detailed as the ocean world she journeys into, with shipwrecks and monsters and secret worlds to be revealed. The story moves fast, with plenty of action and twists to keep things interesting. On that note, I especially love how Brosgol is deliberate in action scenes about drawing out exactly where characters are in the scene, and what they are doing—this combines with Jane's clever solutions to escaping peril, so that we see exactly what she did to escape and think, "Geez, that's freaking brilliant!" I'll bet Brosgol's skill in this area comes from her work in animation, where you literally have to draw exactly where the characters are, and where they move next. Additionally, the characters are never one-dimensional, and in fact, some of them turn up in the story's pitch-perfect ending in unexpected but utterly brilliant and rewarding ways. (The end of this book is so satisfying, y'all—ugh.) And Brosgol nails every emotional note, through a combination of keen visual storytelling and meaningful dialogue, so that you come out of the story feeling like the themes have truly been explored.

And to seal the deal, Brosgol balances the seriousness and depth of this book with tons of humor, and darkness, and dark humor—all of these are her trademarks if you've read Anya's Ghost. I suspect she'll sneak the story's themes right under young readers' noses, because they'll be plenty swept up in laughing, and gasping, and watching her work her storytelling magic. With the darkness especially, I feel like this book echoes fairy tales in how edgy and occasionally unforgiving it can be—many characters meet grim fates (talk about schadenfreude), and you definitely feel the intensity of Jane's journey right alongside her. I think in general, this book provides a safe, welcoming space for kids to reckon with frightening things, in the way some of the best children's literature does—it's a far cry from the kinds of sanitized by-adults-for-kids stories that sometimes permeate the MG world. Brosgol has a lot of faith in her young readers to walk with her along this journey.

For all the darkness and humor in Plain Jane and the Mermaid, there is immense compassion and love too. Honestly, I feel like this book has something for everyone—it's intricately plotted like Beetle & the Hollowbones, gripping and emotional like On a Sunbeam, and atmospheric and awe-inspiring like This Was Our Pact, with a setting that's got some medieval Queen of the Sea vibes and some underwater-magic The Girl from the Sea vibes. But despite all those comparisons, and all the fairy-tale elements that have been blended into this story, it is unabashedly its own thing. I think this is the best MG graphic novel I've read all year, and I hope some of y'all will pick it up and give it a try, so you can practically throw it into young readers' hands and let them explore this meaningful, thrilling tale.

That's all I've got—have a restful week, and don't forget to stop and enjoy a book! ✨✨

Comments

  1. Well Max, after that endorsement, the only thing I can do is read PLAIN JANE AND THE MERMAID immediately.

    I absolutely loved hearing your thoughts and insights on this book. I completely agree with you about twee MG that’s aimed more at adults’ insecurities about children than real children, and smacks of a kind of protectionism that kids most definitely don’t need. They need exactly the opposite: adults who tell the truth about our complex world, who walk with them as they develop their capacity to deal with difficult things.

    Okay, I’ll hop off my soap box now.

    Thanks for another terrific and thoughtful review!

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  2. This sounds really good and I enjoyed both Be Prepared and Anya's Ghost so I am sure I'd like this one. I agree that graphic novels have the benefit of sending the reader messages visually as well as verbally and do a fantastic job of combatting many stereotypes and making all readers feel represented.

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  3. A new Vera Brosgol!!! I'm so excited because I had no idea this was out. I have loved her other books. I'll be looking for this one right away. And those comparisons--so many of my favorites!! Loved reading your review and being able to anticipate an exciting new read!

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  4. That's cool that you picked up the book after reading Kasey's review last week. And I agree with you that middle grade novels have messages that adults need to hear too.

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  5. The way you described this, Max, feels like it's so important for middle-schoolers, younger high school, too! When out this am, I heard news about older kids today, more than ever, being so at risk for huge mental health problems, ones that often "they" believe can be helped with street drugs, but also often, overdosing. They emphasized that part was believing they were of no value to their parents/family unless they were attractive and had excellent grades. That way of valuing a child feels so heartbreaking, and your review touched on especially the "looks" this time. Thanks much for the wonderful review. My library has it! Have a great week this week!

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  6. I saw this one come in at the bookstore I work at and was immediately captured by it. Had to put it on a display right away. Sounds like I made the right choice! I definitely need to read this one.

    Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction

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  7. I added this book to my future read list based on Kasey review and now yours pushed it right to the top. Such an intriguing main character. Finding independence is something kids strive for and this would make a great book for discussion. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and Happy MMGM!

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  8. This sounds great! Fantastic review - I read Anya’s Ghost a few years ago so I’m looking forward to picking up this one!

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  9. You are so right about MG books having lessons that adults need to hear. More people of all ages should read more MG lit!

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  10. Excellent review. I like that the not-so-pretty girl is featured. The cover really caught my attention. I might give this a try. Thanks for the post.

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  11. We're having an event with Vera Brosgol at the bookstore where I work next month. She's always been wonderful and I can't wait for more people to read this graphic novel.

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