Many cultures have myths of mermaids, mermaid books, or similar accountings of mythical marine creatures. In 1998, Basil H. Johnston, an Ojibwe author and scholar from Ontario, collected First Nations folktales into his book Mermaids and Medicine Women: Native Myths and Legends. Mami Wata is a protective water deity in African and African American folklore who often resembles a snake or a mermaid.
Marginalized people around the world often feel drawn to mermaids, who don’t quite belong either on land or in the ocean. In 2017 on Book Riot, Leah Rachel von Essen wrote about Hans Christian Andersen’s unrequited attraction for a male friend and how this possibly inspired him to write “The Little Mermaid.”
Growing up disabled, I related to Disney’s Ariel and her desire to walk. I’ve published fiction and essays and given interviews exploring this feeling. I realized many years later that I found it liberating that Ariel lives in a society where no one expects to walk. Disabled writers have also pointed out that the mermaid in Andersen’s original fairy tale becomes unable to speak and feels pain with every step.
Though they’ve always been popular, mermaids are having a moment. In 2022, the movie The King’s Daughter, based on the 1997 novel The Moon and the Sun by Vonda N. McIntyre, was released. Disney’s live-action version of The Little Mermaid will come out in May 2023. Sea gods, sirens, and selkies are also popular subjects for recent YA fantasy novels. Mermaid books appear in Peter Pan retellings like Second Star to the Left, though they aren’t the main characters. House of Salt and Sorrows, a recent YA retelling of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” is set on an island where people worship nautical gods. Books that aren’t fantasies often use mermaids as symbols.
These new mermaid books span genres, age groups, and cultures and range in tone from lighthearted to serious. They offer unique interpretations of mermaids and similar sea dwellers.
Skin of the Sea by Natasha Bowen
This 2021 YA fantasy novel is inspired by “The Little Mermaid” and West African folklore. The protagonist, Simi, is a mami wata, a water spirit who guides enslaved people who die at sea to the Yoruba afterlife. When Simi transforms into a human and saves an enslaved human, the story inverts plot details from “The Little Mermaid” in fascinating ways. Soul of the Deep, the sequel, was published in fall 2022.
The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea by Maggie Tokuda-Hall
In 2022, Addison Rizer recommended this book for fans of Our Flag Means Death, and as a fan of this book and OFMD, I agree. This YA fantasy novel combines pirate adventures with diverse, queer characters who form a family of choice. Lady Evelyn Hasegawa feels trapped by compulsory heterosexuality, but her kindness and bravery help her start a new life. I also love when the sea becomes a character. I don’t want to give away how the book does this because it’s very moving.
Breathe and Count Back from Ten by Natalia Sylvester
This is literary YA fiction and not fantasy, but it weaves in the imagery of mermaids beautifully. Veró, a Peruvian American girl with hip dysplasia, wants to work at a local mermaid-themed park in Florida. Veró relates both Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” and Peruvian myths about mermaids to her disability, her first love, and her passion for swimming.
Above the Sea by Laura Burton and Jessie Cal
In this 2022 mashup between “The Little Mermaid” and Peter Pan, mermaid Lexa, Poseidon’s daughter, is secretly in love with Captain Hook. This YA fantasy romance is the fifth in the authors’ Fairy Tales Reimagined series. All the books in the series tell interconnected stories involving other fairy tale characters, including Snow White, Cinderella, and The Snow Queen. Although you can read it by itself, the series is best read in order.
The Deep by Rivers Solomon with Daveed Diggs, William Hutson, and Jonathan Snipes
Rivers Solomon, the author of Sorrowland, expanded clipping.’s song “The Deep” into a novella in 2019. The song was nominated for a Hugo Award, and the book won a Lambda Literary Award. The protagonist, Yetu, is a wajinru, descended from enslaved, pregnant African people whom slave-owners threw overboard. She breathes underwater and keeps her people’s memories. Oil drilling and pollution threaten all her people’s lives.
Prince of Song & Sea by Linsey Miller
Disney’s Prince Eric always seemed like a vague character to me. If you’ve ever wondered about his family, love of music, kingdom, or other motivations, then this book is for you! It begins with Ariel rescuing Eric, told from Eric’s POV. This 2022 novel is the first in Disney’s new YA Princes series. Miller’s book about Prince Phillip from Sleeping Beauty, Prince of Thorns & Nightmares, will be published on October 3, 2023.
The Little Mermaid: Against the Tide by J. Elle
This YA novel, which will be published on April 11, 2023, ties into Disney’s upcoming live-action Little Mermaid movie, starring Halle Bailey as Ariel. It should provide a backstory for the death of Ariel’s mother and explain Ariel’s adventurous personality and King Triton’s over-protectiveness towards his daughters. Ariel must help look for one of her sisters, who has been kidnapped.
The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror by Daniel M. Lavery
Lavery co-founded the feminist humor website The Toast. Some of the fantasy and horror stories in his collection expand on, or appeared in, his series for The Toast, Children’s Stories Made Horrific. His “Little Mermaid” retelling puts an eerie spin on the heartbroken mermaid’s chance to gain an immortal soul instead of turning into sea foam. Other stories retell Shakespeare and “The Velveteen Rabbit.”
A Song Below Water by Bethany C. Morrow
This contemporary, YA fantasy centers around the unlikely friendship between two young, Black women: Effie and Tavia. Effie performs as a mermaid at Renaissance Faires around Portland, Oregon and has mysterious powers. Tavia is a siren. Unlike other magical beings in the novel, sirens face distrust and prejudice because they are so powerful and can mesmerize people. The sequel, A Chorus Rises, was released in 2021.
A Song of Silver and Gold by Melissa Karibian
This is a New Adult, sapphic retelling of “The Little Mermaid” and part one of a fantasy duology. The central enemies to lovers, queer romance is between a human, gender non-conforming pirate captain and a siren. Fitting the title, the book has an epigraph from Sappho, dedicated to queer readers, and lots of original poetry and lyrics. The sequel, A Chorus of Ashes and Shadows, will be published on June 16, 2023.
I also enjoy Selina Fenech’s coloring books of fantasy creatures, including her Mythical Mermaids Fantasy Adult Coloring Book.