This is one of the most transcendentally beautiful children’s books I’ve ever read. As a poet, Randall Jarrell gives every word a particular grace and spaciousness, and the illustrations by Maurice Sendak are peaceful and evocative.
The story begins with a hunter who lives alone on an island. Although his world is lovely, he has no one to share it with. Jarrell gives a sense of the hunter’s loneliness in a particularly memorable paragraph: “One winter night, as he looked at the star that, blazing coldly, made the belt and the sword of the hunter Orion, a great green meteor went slowly across the sky. The hunter’s heart leaped, he cried ‘Look, look!’ But there was no one to look.”
One night, as the hunter stands looking out over the sea, he hears a kind of burbling laughter arising from the waves. He returns night after night, and eventually becomes friends with an adventurous mermaid who wants to see what living on land is like. Together they begin a kind of family, to which is eventually added a baby lynx and a bear cub. Without being anthropomorphized, the two animals are fully realized characters, capable of both great kindness and foolishness. The adventures of this foursome are often funny and always moving because of the great love that binds them together. One of my favorite details in this wonderful book is that the mermaid is not afraid of making mistakes; they simply make her laugh!
My uncle gave me this book on my seventh birthday, and I have read it at least once a year (43!) since. Although it is a wonderful book for ages six to eight, it will enchant readers of any age. In fact, I read it often during my teens when I needed to be reassured by its serene sweetness.