As a middle school teacher, Susan L. Read often talks to her students about how books can be a window through which the reader can learn about people, cultures, and lifestyles that are outside of their own personal experiences. But she wanted her first book, Mermaid Tears, to be a mirror. Through that mirror, she says, readers who may be struggling to navigate issues similar to those of the main character may recognize themselves and realize that they are not alone.
Mermaid Tears tells the story of Sarah, an incoming sixth grader haunted by a “now-frequent question: Why can’t I be like everyone else? Why can’t I be normal?”
School hangs over Sarah “like a giant storm cloud.” She loves learning, but she can’t get her brain to cooperate or to focus. She is saddled with labels such as immature, disruptive, and doesn’t work well with others. Though she tries her best, she can’t get anything other than “that dreaded letter, C” on her report card.
Deeply depressed, Sarah is in thrall to mermaids: “The fact that they are not real,” she states. “I am wishing more and more just lately that I weren’t real….If I really were a mermaid, I would just swim away. I would find a new part of the ocean to hide [in].” But an empathetic teacher to whom Sarah entrusts her feelings takes the lead in getting her the professional help and diagnosis needed to help her move forward and to redefine “normal” for her.
In writing Mermaid Tears, Read held a mirror up to her own life. “Sarah’s story is pretty much my own,” she says. “Mental health was an issue for me growing up in New Zealand. Normal, I thought, did not look like me. I used to ask, ‘What’s wrong with me?’ I still felt that [way] as an adult; I didn’t get a diagnosis until I was well into my 20s.”
What she did have growing up, though, was a compassionate high school teacher on whom she drew, in part, for the teacher who helps Sarah. (Mr. Douglas, the character in the book, is named for a colleague of Read’s whom students felt they could open up to,” she says. “He was nonjudgmental.”)
Read’s own Mr. Douglas was Clifton Buck. “I owe him a great debt,” she says. “By that time, I considered myself a total failure. But I loved to read and write, and he recognized both of those things in me. He also recognized that I had [mental health] issues. He was the head of the English department, and he set me up with a desk in the department’s office where I could go during lunch or study hall breaks to read or complete a list of tasks with nobody to bother me. That was bliss. He also got me writing for the school newspaper. He was really encouraging with written assignments. Up until then, I had been a struggling C student. For the first time, I was getting A’s. That made me think that there is something I’m actually good at.”
Mermaid Tears is structured as part first-person narrative and part verse, which expresses Sarah’s thoughts as if she were writing in a journal:
Life is like sea glass.
Some parts are smooth.
Easy to navigate through.
Some parts are sharper.
Once they have touched you,
you can be permanently damaged.
Will I be one of the lucky ones?
The sea glass
has touched me.
There have been many sharp pieces.
Read wrote that verse before she began writing the book. It was part of an exercise at a writers’ workshop for which participants pulled an item out of a bag and then wrote about it. Read pulled out a piece of sea glass. What she wrote impressed award-winning YA author Lynda Mullaly Hunt, another workshop participant, whose book Fish in a Tree is about a young girl with dyslexia.
“She said, ‘That was really amazing,’ and encouraged me to put that in a book,” Read recalled. “I saw her three months later at a book signing. She recognized me and said, ‘Have you started yet?’ and gave me a huge hug.”
Kirkus Reviews praises Mermaid Tears as “an engaging and sympathetic exploration of a girl’s struggles with mental illness and recovery.” Read says she hopes readers for whom this book is a window may recognize one of their friends or classmates and be moved to be there for them or to reach out to them. For readers who see themselves reflected in Sarah’s story, Read hopes that they, too, will be inspired to reconsider their perception of “normal” or to seek out their own Mr. Douglas or Clifton Buck.
Mermaid Tears is billed as “A Michaels Middle School Story.” Read is working on the second book in the series. It will focus on a different student. “I feel Sarah’s story has been told,” she says.
Read now lives in Massachusetts, where she arrived six days after 9/11. The book is dedicated to her late husband, “who taught me that ‘normal’ has no meaning,” she writes. “I credit him completely with that.”
Writing the book, she says, was cathartic. “Very much so,” she emphasizes. “A lot of negative stuff from my childhood resurfaced during the writing process, but I found myself working through it and focusing on the positives, where as a child I hadn’t been able to. In a way, especially in the verse parts of the book, I was acting as my own therapist.”
Donald Liebenson is a Chicago-based writer.