San Francisco Author Wants Black Girls to See Themselves in ‘The Mermaid Princesses’

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A colorful illustration of three Black mermaids holding hands and floating in the ocean.
Author Maya Cameron-Gordon created ‘The Mermaid Princesses’ so her daughter could read about magical girls that looked just like her. (HarperCollins/ Illustration by Mirelle Ortega)

Five years ago, Maya Cameron-Gordon was working as a mindfulness and expressive arts teacher at the Mindful Life Project in Richmond. One day, she shared with her class her desire to write children’s books. When one of the kids asked why, she asked the class to conduct an experiment.

“I had them all close their eyes,” Cameron-Gordon tells KQED Arts. “Then I asked them to imagine a princess. When I asked the girls what the princesses looked like, they all described the same character — fair-skinned with long, flowing blonde hair and a pretty dress. They literally all described the same thing. This was a group of all Black and Latina students. It broke my heart.”

Cameron-Gordon had long had an idea for a children’s book inspired by her own daughter, Amira Sanaa Gordon, and Amira's love of mermaids. But it took that experience in class to make it happen: As soon as Cameron-Gordon got home that day, she put pen to paper and started writing the story, and The Mermaid Princesses was born. Cameron-Gordon initially self-published the book, but it was picked up by HarperCollins and will be released nationwide this month.

An attractive Black woman with long braids stands in a garden, smiling for the camera. She is wearing a long-sleeved white top and delicate gold earrings and necklace.
Author Maya Cameron-Gordon was born and raised in San Francisco and is based in Oakland. (Courtesy of Lakeela Smith)

At the center of the story are three mermaid sisters, all vying to one day become queen. Anaya is kind and compassionate. Shante is strong and brave. Kianna is wise and studious. When a big challenge arises, the trio must learn to work as a team and use their individual strengths to overcome their problems together.

Illustrator Mirelle Ortega, an award-winning Mexican artist living in LA, brings the sisters to life. When Cameron-Gordon first saw Ortega’s artwork, she knew she’d found the right collaborator for her project.

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“I love that she’s another woman of color doing for her people what I’m trying to do for mine,” Cameron-Gordon explains. “We had really great chemistry working together. I sent her photos of hairstyles, jewelry, African face paint designs, along with other characters and illustrations I loved. Other illustrators would have had a problem with this, but Mirelle was open.”

A children's book illustration of a Black woman wearing gold armbands, necklaces, earrings and elaborate headdress.
The mermaid princesses’ very regal mom, the queen. (HarperCollins/ Illustration by Mirelle Ortega)

Cameron-Gordon knew from the start that she wanted the sisters to showcase Black beauty. She and Ortega made a conscious decision to give the three main characters different hair textures and skin tones. They also made sure that the mermaids all wore regal gold accessories.

“That for me is symbolic,” Cameron-Gordon explains. “It represents strength, beauty and pride. I wanted little Black and brown girls to read this book and feel proud of who they are without directly being told to do so. I want Black and brown girls to love their skin tones and embrace their hair textures. At the same time, I was intentional about not having the emphasis be on their looks. I highlight the protagonists’ other qualities — strength, courage, kindness and intellect.”

The story also carries elements of African spirituality throughout. Mermaid myths have been part of African culture for thousands of years. The most famous, Mami Wata, is said to bring luck and blessings to those who treat her with respect — but she is dangerous to those who try and harm her. Cameron-Gordon included a page of fun facts in the book about both Mami Wata and the African mermaid goddess Yemaya. Most exciting of all, however, is a character she created named Asheeka, a powerful sorceress who uses cowrie shells to predict the future.

“It’s one of the oldest known spiritual practices in the world,” Cameron-Gordon explains. “Originated by the Yoruba people of West Africa, cowrie shell divination is used to connect to the wisdom of ancestors and deities. Magic was so important for me to include in this story. I believe fantasy and adventure are most kids’ favorite genres, yet African Americans are almost nonexistent in them.”

A children's book illustration depicts a sorceress using shells to predict the future. Hovering over her head are images of two dolphins and an octopus.
Asheeka, the most powerful sorceress in the sea. (HarperCollins/ Illustration by Mirelle Ortega)

The conversation about representation is personal for Cameron-Gordon: In the course of creating The Mermaid Princesses, the author realized that she was healing her own childhood wounds.

“I was born in 1990 and media taught girls that the most important thing for us to be was pretty,” Cameron-Gordon says. “It also taught me that in order to be pretty I needed to be skinny, white, with blue eyes and blonde hair. I remember crying in the mirror because I did not like what I saw. I can’t even begin to describe how much I healed through the process of writing this book.

“Literature is one of the first places a child looks to find role models — the people they want to be like,” Cameron-Gordon continues. “I can’t stress enough how important it is for children to see darker complexioned characters in books.”

It turns out Cameron-Gordon was hardly alone in thinking it was well past time for kids to see a Black mermaid: When she started writing The Mermaid Princesses, she had no way of knowing that her book would end up getting released just two months before Disney’s live action version of The Little Mermaid. The movie, starring Halle Bailey as Ariel, caused a stir on social media with its first trailer in 2022, as Black families around the country filmed their daughters reacting to the sight of Ariel. The heartwarming clips quickly went viral.

 

Cameron-Gordon has already seen little girls react to her book in a similar way.

“When I self-published my book, parents sent me videos of their children seeing The Mermaid Princesses for the first time, and it was the most touching thing,” she says. “I had two different parents share with me that their kids saw my characters on their parent’s Instagram and grabbed the phone and said: ‘Mommy, she looks like me!’”

Cameron-Gordon can’t help but feel the close timing of The Mermaid Princesses and The Little Mermaid is serendipitous.

“I will always remember the night I found out that Disney was casting a Black girl for the role of Ariel,” the author says. “My godmother called me and when she told me the news, I screamed. I am so grateful and just so happy for our little Black and brown girls.”

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‘The Mermaid Princesses’ by Maya Cameron-Gordon, illustrated by Mirelle Ortega, is out on March 28 via HarperCollins. Details here. Cameron-Gordon will be appearing at Book Passage in Corte Madera on Saturday, April 15. Event details here.