Six mermaids attempt to uncover hidden talismans in order to save their undersea world in the Waterfire Saga, a new multi-platform YA series from Disney Publishing Worldwide, written by Jennifer Donnelly. A venture that spans various creative groups across DPW, the four-book saga will debut with Deep Blue on May 6, along with an enhanced e-book edition that includes promotional video content and an original song commissioned by the company’s Hollywood Records. Deep Blue will be published simultaneously in the U.K., Italy, and Spain, with yet-to-be-announced additional foreign editions to follow in late 2014 and early 2015, and an audio book recorded by The X-Factor finalist Bea Miller will be released by Listening Library. Suzanne Murphy, v-p and global books publisher, acquired world rights to the Waterfire Saga from Steven Malk of Writers House, Donnelly’s agent. Disney Book Group associate publisher Stephanie Lurie will edit the series.

The Waterfire Saga grew out of a collaborative effort among various Disney Publishing departments, whose staffers had for some years been exploring the idea of doing a project based on a mythology of mermaids. “Editors, in-house artists, and designers got together to figure out what we could do on this theme from a creative standpoint,” said Murphy. “The idea for the Waterfire Saga blossomed from there. We collaborated on building a far-reaching world beneath the oceans where teenage mermaids from different realms battle evil.”

That underwater world began to take shape as staffers compiled a “bible” of nearly 200 pages that contains profiles of the main characters, information about their cultures and lifestyles, the story arc, and copious images of the mermaid world and its inhabitants. “The bible covers so many details, even what the mermaids eat and wear,” said Murphy. “These aren’t your clam shell bra-wearing mermaids. Though they are magical, they are outgrowths of the human world and the world of the sea.”

In-house enthusiasm for Donnelly’s YA novels, A Northern Light (which won Britain’s Carnegie Medal and a Printz Honor) and Revolution, led Murphy to approach the author to write the series. “Many of us here are big fans of Jennifer’s work,” said Murphy. “Her historical novels are so rich in terms of place and history, and she really gets character on top of that. She was perfect for the project.”

Serendipitous Timing

“It was a tremendous coincidence,” said Donnelly of being asked to write the Waterfire Saga. “It was summer 2011; I’d finished Revolution and was casting about for ideas for my next project and coming up dry, which is a very scary thing for a writer,” she recalled. She decided to spend a day at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, viewing “Savage Beauty,” a retrospective of the work of the late fashion designer Alexander McQueen.

“I was spellbound,” said Donnelly. “All these emotions – loss, love, longing – were bound up in the stitches of McQueen’s clothes. And in the last gallery, which had ocean-related themes, I looked overhead and there was a giant video screen showing a girl sinking through the water, and I was mesmerized. I thought, ‘Who is she?’ And I knew immediately that whatever I wrote next would feature the ocean in some way.” Donnelly arrived home to find a phone message from Malk, asking if she’d be interested in writing a series about oceans and mermaids. “I was speechless,” she said. “All I could do is think, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me!’ ”

After signing on, Donnelly received the Waterfire Saga bible from Disney, and set about bringing the mermaid world to life – with some trepidation. “I had never written fantasy before, so it was a bit overwhelming,” she said. “With historical fiction, you can’t depart from the real world. In fantasy, you have all this freedom, yet the world has to have logic and make sense to readers. I was given much leeway, which was both terrifying and exhilarating. I went back and forth with the Disney illustrators, so this has been much more collaborative than anything I’ve done before.”

Though the series is rooted in fantasy, Donnelly noted that she wanted to ensure that the characters – though magical beings – are real to readers. “Not only are the mermaids physically inspired by real ocean creatures, but they are very much teenagers, going through what all teens do,” she said. “They struggle to understand themselves and their place in the world. We all like our fantasy with characters and experiences we can recognize as our own, and there is definitely a lot of reality in this series.”

What the Future Holds for the Mermaids

The second installment of Waterfire Saga, Rogue Wave, will be released in January 2015. The third and fourth volumes are due in fall 2015 and summer 2016, respectively. And the series will continue to expand in 2015 with graphic novels and comics, the latter originating from DPW’s global magazine and comics creative team, based in Milan. Also planned for fall 2015 is an illustrated gift-book edition of Deep Blue.

Jeanne Mosure, senior v-p and group publisher at Disney Publishing Worldwide, envisions further growth of what the company is calling a global franchise. “The world of the Waterfire Saga is global in scope, and we hope to make this world relevant to YA readers and bring it to them in different ways,” she said. “We’re taking a holistic approach and launching the series across various platforms, and are looking to develop interactive, digital, and additional video and music components.”

Disney is launching the Waterfire Saga with, ahem, quite a splash. Deep Blue will have a 250,000-copy first printing, and the $500,000 marketing campaign for the novel includes a national author tour kicking off May 6; print, TV, and in-theater consumer advertising; promotion through ABC Family and Hollywood Records; and a retail floor display with riser.

Donnelly, who has already completed the second book of the series, noted that this is hardly her first brush with Disney mermaids, as she and her 10-year old daughter, Daniele, are longtime fans of Ariel of The Little Mermaid fame. “We love Ariel in this house,” she said. “In fact, Daniele wore an Ariel costume for three Halloweens. Of course, the Waterfire Saga is very different, in age appeal and tone – it has a darkness and an urgency to it. I adore these characters, adore writing about the ocean and, as it turns out, adore writing fantasy. This has been the best project of my life.”

The Waterfire Saga: Deep Blue by Jennifer Donnelly. Disney-Hyperion, $17.99 May ISBN 978-1-4231-3316-2