Janet Balleta’s charming story, The Legend of the Colombian Mermaid, is based on a Colombian folk tale that Balleta learned from her mother when she was a young child.
In the story, Judith and her little brother, Tomas, spend all day on Maundy Thursday with their friends, playing in the Guatapuri River, which runs near their village.
Although the river is beautiful, it isn’t entirely safe. The river is inhabited by a mermaid who was once a human girl. The girl was cursed because she disobeyed her parents and swam in the river on Good Friday. And now the girl is La Sirena, a mermaid. She has the power to enchant children who do as she did. If a child plays in the river on Good Friday, she turns the child into a mermaid who stays with her forever.
So the children know they mustn’t play in the river on Good Friday. On Maundy Thursday, though, they feel safe enough.
But when it’s time to go home, Judith realizes that her little brother is missing. First she fears that he has drowned. But then she realizes that he has been lured to the other side of the waterfall by La Sirena, and if she can’t find him and rescue him by dawn on Good Friday, he will be a mermaid forever.
Spanish and English, Mermaids and Mermen
The Legend of the Colombian Mermaid is available in both English and in Spanish. I got the Spanish version in paperback, and I got the English version for my Kindle.
Some English-language readers may find it odd that the mermaid who haunts the river would change Judith’s little brother into a mermaid, and not a merman. I found it odd, anyway. But I first learned about merfolk from Hans Christian Anderson, and not from Spongebob Squarepants.
Anyone who grew up watching Spongebob Squarepants would be familiar the characters Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy. Given that, it seems reasonable to expect children to regard mermaid as a nongendered word. If they know Mermaid Man, they wouldn’t expect male merfolk to be called mermen.
Illustrations in The Legend of the Colombian Mermaid
Working in a naive style in crayon and pencil, Estella Mejia created illustrations with limited perspective and childlike simplicity. They work better, I think, in the paperback edition than in the ebook. For one thing, in the ebook, the publisher included extra art that doesn’t fit with Mejia’s work. And Mejia’s work seems to need the full page that each illustration gets in the paperback edition to be effective.
Even in the paperback edition, though, they’re not entirely to my taste. But a friend’s daughter adores the book. When her mother asked her what she liked best about it, she said it was the illustrations. She thinks the book is beautiful.
Endings and Extras
The book has a happy, if rather didactic, ending. After they’re safely home, the children decide that they’ll never go to the river during Holy Week ever again, they pray for the children who have been captured by the mermaid, and they never disobey their parents again.
The book includes a brief glossary and discussion questions in the back.
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