YA books, like everything else for teens, are subject to the whims of trends and fashion. Remember when they were all about vampires? Or all about magical boarding schools? Or magical boarding schools with vampires? Or hyper-violent anti-authoritarian post-apocalypses? Those trends are all in the past — and they've been replaced by some sexy amphibian angst.
The latest young adult craze? Mermaids.
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One of the great things about publishing, compared to say film, is that there are enough books out every year that no matter what obscure sub-genre you love — whether it's cats who bake, or dressmakers who solve crimes — there's probably at least one book published in that genre a year. There were plenty of vampire books out there, before Twilight made the subgenre popular. Vampire Diaries, occasionally derided as a Twilight clone, was actually published long before Twilight, and repackaged when publishers saw they could capitalize on the newest trend.
There have been plenty of mermaid books over the years, too. Partly this is because, unlike the rule-bound vampire tradition spawned by Dracula's, the mermaid genre is pretty flexible. It easily encompasses stories of sirens, sea nymphs and selkies. And any body of water will do. Mermaids can be murderous monsters, or really cool chicks who like dolphins and want to save the ocean.
But the mermaid genre may have reached a critical mass this past summer. There have been seventeen mermaid books so far in 2012. So what do the books in this year's mermaid boom have in common?
Sirens are killers. Some mermaids are good, some mermaids are bad — but a siren in a book guarantees a body count. In at least three of this year's books, sirens are compelled to kill all the guys around them. Amanda Hocking, the self-publishing phenom, came out with her first traditionally published book Wake (Watersong Trilogy, Book #1) this summer. Her sirens are a combination of hot girls and sociopaths, and their newest inductee is not so thrilled with the bloodshed. Neither is the main character of Mandy Hubbard's Ripple, — a girl who was born a siren. She feels compelled to swim every night, and has already caused the death of her first boyfriend. But not all sirens are the same. In Tricia Rayburn's Dark Water (Sirens Book #3) they can breathe underwater and need to drink salt water. In Hocking's book, they get tails. In Hubbard's book they just get super blue eyes and shiny scales.
The colder the water, the bleaker the story. If you like your mermaids sweet and fun, stick to the waters around California and Florida. If you head up to Alaska, you'll find yourself in the company of Sarah Porter's Waking Storm (Lost Voices Trilogy, Book #2) mermaids – all girls who had been abused or brutalized, and died near water. They are transformed into beautiful but vengeful mermaids, who like taking their past pain out on unsuspecting humans. You won't do much better inland, where Anne Greenwood Brown's Lies Beneath (Lies Beneath Book #1) is set. Lake Superior is home to a band of murderous mermaids who absorb human emotions, leaving people dead.
Mermaids are not all girls. Sure most of these books have female protagonists, but there's a fair dose of hot mer-dudes in the romantic books, not to mention mer-dudes who are protagonists and co-protagonists all on their own. Anna Davies's Wrecked is a gender-swapped Little Mermaid retelling, with a sea witch who demands a merman kill a human girl. While Of Poseidon by Anna Banks, partially follows a merman prince in Florida as he looks for a long lost half-mermaid who can help save his kingdom. Zoraida Cordova's The Vicious Deep's male protagonist is washed out to sea, discovers he's a merman, and has to fight for the crown of an underwater kingdom.
Mermaids are obsessed with politics. Of Poseidon and The Vicious Deep's aren't the only mermaid books that concern themselves with underwater succession, political infighting and the threat of war. Tera Lynn Childs Just for Fins (Fins #3) is a bubbly comedic take on the story of a half-human mermaid princess as she struggles with underwater politics of multiple mermaid kingdoms. While Tracy Deebs's Tempest Unleashed (Tempest #2) is a much more serious version of a similar story. In Real Mermaids Don't Hold Their Breath (Real Mermaids #2) by Helene Bourdreau, another comedy, there is conflict between salt water and fresh water mermaids.
Mermaids are timeless. No really, they exist in all time periods. Kathryn Lasky's Lucy (Daughters of the Sea #3) is set in 1899 in Bar Harbor, Maine, where an adopted girl struggles against upper-class strictures and with her strange interest in the ocean. Elizabeth Fama complicates things by following characters in both the 1870s and modern times in her book Monstrous Beauty. Mermaids even get a futuristic twist in Jenn Reese's Above World (Above World #1), where survivors of an environmental apocalypse who transform themselves into mermaids discover their technology is failing.
Mermaids aren't the only magical creatures around. Lots of mermaid books include sea witches and other creatures — Of Poseidon's world is filled with sea witches, selkies and mermaids. Jackson Pearce's mermaid novel takes place in the same world as his other fairytale stories like Sisters Red. In Fathomless (Fairytale Retellings #3), a girl with the power to know people's pasts encounters a mermaid who is slowly losing her humanity. Lisa Papademetriou's Fury's Fire (Siren's Storm #2) looks to Greek myths for inspiration for her siren story, bringing multiple magical creatures, besides mermaids, to modern day Long Island.
Mermaids like series. Okay, not really — but publishers do. All but two of the seventeen books out this year are part of ongoing series. And Helen Dunmore's Stormswept has the honor of being the first book in a second series of the author's mermaid books set in the mer-world of Ingo.
But mermaids still aren't the huge success that vampires or dystopias are because they are, to put it bluntly, girls' books. Really successful books manage to transcend their core audience. Hunger Games, with its female protagonist and prominent love triangle could have been just a girls' book, but it was read by both girls and boys. Twilight readers included both women and girls. Harry Potter was read by boys, girls, men and women.
But mermaid books may yet be able to transcend their female-oriented origins, and win over more readers. St. Martin's Press is hoping Wake will recreate Amanda Hocking's spectacular online success. Vicious Deep's male protagonist and adventure plot could entice boy readers. There's a lot of reader buzz around Monstrous Beauty, and it may gain more women readers.
But the breakout book may be Margo Lanagan's selkie novel Brides of Rollrock Island, which will be the eighteenth mermaid book of the year when it comes out. Lanagan's previous book, Tender Morsels, was something of a minor crossover hit. Her highly literary examination of folk tales and refusal to shy away from brutality and darkness garnered her book awards and positive reviews. It wasn't a best seller, but was read by many adults, and it's likely her newest book will reach that audience as well.
But even if mermaids don't achieve vampire levels of success, they're definitely enjoying a banner year — and mermaid lit is here to stay.