When the movie Aquamarine came out, I didn’t really pay attention to the trailers, nor did I have any idea that it was based on a book. It looked like a silly movie, so I paid it no mind. I was slightly interested because it was about a mermaid, but not enough to do anything about it.
Then, in grad school, I read the book for my fairy tale class. I liked it. I didn’t love it, but not because it wasn’t good. It’s fine. It just happened to be very quiet and younger middle grade, which I hadn’t expected after the movie trailer made it seem so teenybopper. I had forgotten books could be like that. Because the popularity of YA has kind of helped MG get bulkier and longer and more epic and older (not that it singlehandedly did that, nor am I making a judgment), it’s easy to forget that authors like Patricia MacLachlan and Patricia Reilly Giff and the like exist, and they do short, 150-or-so-page novels that are mostly about one thing and don’t have a lot of extraneous anything – no side plots, not a huge cast of characters, no great story arcs. Just a little story to tell about little people. I always think of them as soft and quiet, because they feel like throwbacks to before children’s literature was such a thing, but I realize that perception may be linked to the fact that I read differently when I’m removed from childhood than I did when I was a child.
Anyway, the book. A fairly poignant but also run-of-the-mill tale of friendship, about dealing with what it means to be friends when you won’t live near each other anymore. One thing I like is that even though it feels young, it’s actually about girls who are about 12, not eight. Like in This One Summer (I really think they are rather similar in their themes; I wrote a very minimal review of the book here), it’s about being on the cusp of teenhood and not being sure whether you want to cross that line or not; it’s about not actually understanding what adolescence will be about but knowing the cues and the symbols of it. It’s about observing it from the outside while knowing that people expect you to be inside it. Like I’ve probably said before, what interested me most in studying children’s literature was exploring what it says about childhood itself, how we construct it, what we think it means, how we tell children what it should mean. This is one of those meta children’s books that does that, I think. If the two friends in the book are like the two friends in This One Summer, Aquamarine is the girl you knew but didn’t really see in middle school who was internalizing all the signifiers of adolescence and attempting to make them and not doing a very smooth job (probably she would turn out well in the end as a result).
I saw the movie on HBO On Demand a couple weeks ago, so I thought I’d check it out. It turns out, it was advertised to appear far more teenybopper than I expected, which I’m sure helped it make more money, so I don’t really blame it. But it’s actually more faithful to the feel of the book than it appears, if still Hollywood-ified in some of the hijinks they get themselves into. In the book, I seem to recall the girls putting Aqua in a wheelchair, covering her tail with a blanket, and pushing her around so she can go on a date with the guy she is sure is her true love (that needs to be unpacked by a disabilities scholar). The movie has far more dramatic run-ins with the police, the popular girl, and the whole town. Aqua is more silly than she is conceited, like in the book. Her misunderstandings about the human world are rather cliché, and she doesn’t have much depth to her at all.
But what the film does retain is its youngness, which I like. It’s not because I have delusional ideas about “innocence” or protecting the sacred nature of childhood, because I don’t believe in either of those things. What I do believe in is that not all tweens wear designer clothes or know how to behave in every situation or are nice. The girls in this movie, played by Emma Roberts and JoJo, wear dorky clothes. JoJo is not a small girl (by film standards). They’re not snarky or worldly; they’re kids who know what they know and that’s it.
I guess what I’m saying is that both of these things, the book and the movie, are strange; aberrations given the zeitgeist of tween and teen media. And they’re interesting. And I will withhold judgment.