Annette Feels Free by Katie Mazeika

Annette Feels Free: The True Story of Annette Kellerman, World-class Swimmer, Fashion Pioneer, and Real-life Mermaid  by Katie Mazeika. Beach Lane Books, 2022. 9781665903431

Rating:  1-5 (5 is an excellent or a Starred review): 4

Format: ARC (publication date 9/13/22)

Genre: Biography

What did you like about the book? As a child in Australia, Annette Kellerman loved to dance, until an illness (possibly polio, or rickets) caused her legs to weaken and require leg braces.  Unable to dance or move freely, the little girl sank into a deep sadness until her father had the idea to bring her to the ocean and teach her to swim.  Annette took to the water, and swimming made her so strong that she no longer needed the braces.  As she grew up, she became a competitive swimmer, breaking records all over Australia, and inventing water ballets that thrilled audiences.  She moved to England to further her career, and found success there too.  Determined to be the first woman to swim across the English Channel, Annette realized that one of her biggest stumbling blocks was the full body swim costume women were expected to wear.  She didn’t quite make it across the channel, but traveled throughout Europe and was soon invited to America for more races.  She continued to be burdened by her swimdress and pantaloons – it was so constricting that it reminded her of her childhood leg braces – so she decided to design her own swimsuit that would make her feel more free.  While training for a race at Revere Beach in Boston, she was arrested for wearing her new suit, but a judge dismissed the charges provided she wore a full-length cape right up to the water’s edge.  Soon enough, the new style caught on, and Annette’s revolutionary idea has had an impact on future generations, not just of competitive swimmers, but casual beachgoers too. 

The inspirational, and little-known, story of Annette Kellerman overcoming the challenges of her childhood to pursue her dream and become a champion of women’s rights will have great appeal for young readers.  Children will appreciate the interesting details, like the endless supply of hot chocolate provided to Annette during her Channel attempt, and that men were allowed to swim naked!  Readers might also be surprised to learn about her long and varied career as a competitive swimmer and a performer, and the idea that she essentially invented artistic swimming and the modern bathing suit.  Full color, digitally rendered illustrations in aquatic tones (even in the few scenes that don’t involve water) perfectly capture Annette’s spirit and the reactions of those around her.  Back matter includes author’s notes, which provide more factual information and connect Annette’s experience with disability to the author’s own, and a source list.

Anything you did not like about the book?  There are no dates provided to put the story into historical context, or establish Annette’s age at certain points.  A simple timeline would be welcome.

To whom would you recommend this book? Readers in grades 1-4 will enjoy this story alongside other women’s biographies like You Forgot Your Skirt, Amelia Bloomer (Corey), Wilma Unlimited (Krull), or America’s Champion Swimmer: Gertrude Ederle (Adler) or Shana Corey’s older book about Annette Kellerman, Mermaid Queen.

Who should buy this book? Public and elementary school libraries

Where would you shelve it?  Biography

Should we (librarians) put this on the top of our “to read” piles?  No

Reviewer’s Name, Library (or school), City:  Leigh Russell King, Lincoln Street School, Northborough, Massachusetts.

Date of review: August 10, 2022

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