The Girl with the Shark’s Teeth – Cerrie Burnell

The Girl with the Shark’s Teeth in some ways is a departure from Cerrie Burnells’s previous picture and early chapter books in being longer and concentrated MG novel that addresses some ‘older’ themes and issues but at its heart retains the same values of magic, wonder, kindness and inclusion.

This song of the sea is fast paced, with high tension and cliffhanger chapters driving the reading forward, one more, just one more chapter immersed in Burnell’s watery myth-soaked tale.

To say I loved it is an understatement.

Minnow feels more at home in the water than on land, after all she has lived her life on her mother’s Boat with its historic charm, but she prepares for breathtaking rescue when her mother is snatched by a trio of men, one of whom secretly warns mum of a search for mermaids and two of whom resemble boys from an ancient story of the sea.

A glistening map of stardust, childhood lullabies and a Icelandic boy with eyes as green as wonder aid her on her quest from Brighton to Reykjavik and onwards to the Bahamas as she discovers the truth about her mother and herself by plunging into The Wild Deep.

The chapter pages are illustrated sinking ever deeper into the darkest night of the sea and the cover illustration by Sandra Dieckmann is beautifully apt for the book packing many clues into the image

‘There are many things we should have told you…’ she began, taking Minnow‘ s face in her hands and looking at her strangely.

The magic and poetry of Burnell’s words and world-building burns brightly throughout even in the chilling Icy seas of Vintertide. The lyrics of the lullabies and words like sea-souls, Lightfins and evoke a sense of wild and wonder in her seascape.

Her writing is so very evocative and we are immediately accepting of the magical realism because of the way we have been captured by Minnow in the first few pages.

It’s worth pointing out that there are a few passages where I wondered had I missed something such as the blunt reference to Minnow having 4 silver teeth when previously it had been talking about her mother but be assured, all became apparent and the work is not weakened by those flutters. Like a shark, the narrative swims back in a circle at certain times which is very evocative of the themes.

The tension is held tight from the opening pages but occasionally the reins are loosened for moments such as wandering around soaking up the sights of Reykjavik waiting for her grandmother, telling tall tales of the sea or of comedic relief such as dressing up to fit into a strange new world.

And fitting in is a key theme of the book as Minnow explores what it means to be dual heritage, much love is lavished here and so many children will feel the glow of feeling heard and understood through Minnow’s story.

My heart swelled from the beginning note where Cerrie describes how being born with one hand affected her childhood and how she didn’t feel represented fully in the books she read, and how in turn her dual heritage daughter didn’t see enough of herself in the books they read together.

Burnell has worked hard to include without tokenism in this novel and for me it works. Mercy has a crystal encrusted hook and is beautiful, powerful and strong both physically and minded and interestingly not afraid to play up to stereotypes when it’s to her own advantage. She is an awesome role model Cerrie has created for all children but especially those like her childhood self.

Minnow being dual heritage, dark skin and braided hair is a touching ode to her own daughter. But I also loved the fact Burnell adds dimension to Minnow, as not walking until she was 5, being clumsy and with scars, having difficulty sleeping, and having strangely formed bones as readers may indeed have walking difficulties, bone disorders, sleep issues, scars and similar issues, to see those issues instead of defining Minnow morph into her super powers including her awesome abilities to swim is so empowering and inclusive and teaches children to look beyond their limitations and labels.

Inclusion is such a powerful thing and whilst it’s important that we have a window into other lives whether real or fantastical it’s important that books are also a mirror to show children that they and children who look like themselves are important and have stories worth telling too again whether real or fantastical.

I applaud Burnell for changing her own world to write the stories to speak to those who are underrepresented or not at all.

And that was the brightest magic Minnow had ever known.’

On a side note, this work touched my heart for its efforts to include children who feel and look different.

I know a little of this feeling through the Fae, my two daughters. Whilst they are blonde, blue eyed and see their attributes frequently in stories they have an undiagnosed genetic condition that causes growth restriction meaning they don’t officially have any of the dwarfism genes or developmental issues but they are remarkably smaller than children of their age.

Until recently this hasn’t been a cause of issues but since Littlefae turned 5 we have had children arguing with her she can’t be, teasing her, excluding her from games or play as a ‘baby’ and in some cases outright aggression for being different.

All the picture books about being small carry the same message ‘one day you will be as big as everyone else’ which is looking increasingly to not be the case for the girls and seems unfair to pretend.

Thanks to a twitter shoutout from the author Robin Stevens we discovered there are a handful of books out there about being short stature and I am glad but there is much more to be done for inclusion of ALL children’s perspectives, ethnicity, heritage, physical, intellectual, emotional and diagnosed conditions, and genetic/chromosomal conditions.

I for one am glad that Cerrie Burnell is one of those voices speaking up and writing stories for those children.

The Girl with the Shark’s Teeth by Cerrie Burnell is published by OUP and available from all good bookshops and online.

I received this book for free through a review scheme with no obligation or payment- this has not affected my opinion.

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