Tracey Baptiste is the bestselling author of numerous middle-grade novels, including Minecraft: The Crash, The Jumbies series, and African Icons, and picture books Looking for a Jumbie and Because Claudette. Here, she shares the mythical and personal influences behind her latest picture book, Mermaid and Pirate, illustrated by Leisl Adams, out now from Algonquin Young Readers.

One of the most frequent questions I get at school visits is “where do you get your ideas?” I tell young readers that the stories I create are a collection of things from my life that stuck together in an interesting way. Judging from the looks I get, this is a hard concept to understand, so I thought I’d lay out what led to the creation of Mermaid and Pirate.

First of all, most people would find it surprising that it wasn’t even my idea to write a mermaid story—which seems crazy, because anyone who knows my work knows that I love mythical creatures, especially mermaids! At schools, I often lead a program called “Comparative Mythology” where young readers do improv to examine the similarities between the creatures in my Jumbies series and other creatures from world folklore, fables, and myths. Then there’s the New York Times op-ed I wrote called “Mermaids Have Always Been Black” that delved into my longtime interest in mermaids from around the globe. So whose brilliant idea was it? After the op-ed, my publisher, Elise Howard, made the suggestion of a Black mermaid story. I agreed, but I didn’t immediately have any ideas. That’s when I made a plea to my secret weapon: my subconscious.

I’ve talked about using my subconscious in various lectures over the years. I’m often busy working on several projects at a time, so coming up with the next thing, or fixing a current thing that isn’t working, isn’t always front of mind. I’ve gotten in the habit of asking my subconscious to take on the task of filling in the many creative black holes that pop up. The whole Black mermaid situation was a huge black hole.

My subconscious fed me memories of my own early mermaid days—the weekends I spent on the beach in Trinidad, swimming in the Caribbean Sea, and then having to sit for ages while my mother combed out my very long, very curly, sea-tangled hair. Mermaid was going to have hair trouble for sure. But what else?

Occasionally, my dog Barkley lets me sit in the armchair in my office. Even then, I often have to move a couple of toys out of the way. There are a lot of toys vying for space in my office, so I frequently swap them out. One day two knitted dolls—a mermaid and a pirate—were on the armchair when I shooed Barkley out of the way and went to sit. My subconscious perked up. I wondered, “How would these two communicate?” and “Could they even be friends?” then, “Would they figure out how?”

Not long after, I dashed off a first draft about a mermaid and pirate who meet when the mermaid’s hair gets caught in the pirate’s nets. But they can’t communicate. There wasn’t much else to the story. This was late 2019. The before times. When most people had never heard of a product called “Zoom.” Then suddenly, we were in lockdown and everybody knew Zoom because it was the go-to way to communicate. Mermaid and pirate were going to have to be separated. And they were not going to like it. At. All.

By then, I knew they had different languages, but how were they going to communicate across distances? Just like everyone else was finding ways to reach out to their loved ones during the pandemic, so did my characters. Growing up surrounded by ocean, I was always fascinated by the idea of messages in bottles—the serendipity of it, but also the sense of longing inherent in sending out a message not knowing if it’s going to reach anyone at all. As a kid, I’d sent out one or two myself: little scrawly notes that have long since disintegrated, I suppose. That was how mermaid and pirate were going to reach each other. Over the water. Hoping that serendipity would get their message to its destination. A pink shell. A gold coin. They’d know what the other one meant.

Several of my friends and family live quite far away, so the pandemic was especially tough. There were people I couldn’t drive to. Flying was out of the question. My parents in Trinidad, a friend in Scotland, more family in Canada. I worried about when I would see them again or if I would see them at all. Attending one uncle’s funeral over Zoom nearly did me in. But the friends who were close, the ones I could see after taking as many precautions as possible, were such a joy! So, I knew when mermaid and pirate finally got to see each other again, it was going to be a very happy moment. Hello, friend!

They definitely needed some buildup to their separation, though.

For the last few years, I’ve been horrified at the words and images on my television screen and social media. It felt like watching the downfall of kindness and friendship worldwide. When did we get so mean? How hard is it to find common ground? Why don’t we protect each other? Mermaid would. She would protect pirate from… a shark. Pirate would. He would protect mermaid from… another captain.

Every time my subconscious fed me a new idea, I’d channel them into this story about creatures from different worlds who figure out how to communicate, how to be kind, and how to become friends.

So, there it is: the bits of my life that became Mermaid and Pirate—ideas that were born out of the wonder I felt as a kid swimming in the sea, and the frustration I felt as an adult observing the world. Ideas that stuck together in an interesting way. There’s hope in there, too. The very last word that mermaid and pirate say together, is a combination of both their languages as they strike out together. Glarb!

They’ve figured it out. As I hope we all will.