Fitting In vs. Belonging: What I Learned from a Selkie (Think Mermaid but Seal Human)

By Emily Whitman

It’s hard when you don’t fit in. As a parent, it was even harder for me when my kids were struggling to fit in. As an author, I found surprising insights writing about a boy trying to find his place in two different worlds — one human, one selkie. Selkies are from Celtic folklore. They swim as seals in the ocean, but they can slip off their pelts to take human form on land. Somehow, writing about a being from folklore set me free to go deeper. I thought I was writing an adventure tale. What I found was a story about the difference between fitting in and belonging.

In The Turning, Aran lives with his selkie clan at sea. They’re all in seal form, but he’s stuck in human form. If he only had a sealskin, he’d be just like everyone else! He’d fit in. Instead he feels different. He wishes he could suck his arms and legs right up into his body, so they’d disappear. His mother assures him his pelt will come and everything will be fine, but that just makes him feel even more that his current shape is wrong. That’s a huge temptation as a parent — to do what we can to help our kids fit into the right boxes, even if they have to lop off parts of themselves to squeeze in. My mother, with the best intentions, told me I looked much better without my glasses, so I didn’t wear them. People thought I was ignoring them in the school halls. I just couldn’t see them!

Aran’s desperate quest for a pelt takes him to the dangerous world of humans. He has to master their bewildering ways to pass as one of them, to fit in. A door, a fork, a chair — they’re all a total mystery to him. He watches how humans use everything, pretending he already knows. Writing that part of the book felt familiar to me. It’s like starting a new school or trying to join a new group, clueless about how they do things, praying you’ll do it well enough that they’ll accept you.

Learning the ways of a world is essential. But denying parts of yourself so that you’re accepted — that’s a pain that can last a lifetime. Living a lie might help you fit in, but it won’t make you belong. True connecting comes from deep inside, from who you really are.

Aran thought he had to deny his human side to be part of his selkie clan. He thought he had to hide his selkie side to have human friends. His search for a pelt turns into a search for himself in all his complex, confusing, amazing individuality.

That’s what I’ve always wanted for my kids: to live as their full selves, accepting who they are and letting their unique voices ring out in the world, finding others who like them because of who they are — not in spite of it. I don’t know about you, but I didn’t always know how to say that to my kids in words. But we all have another amazing tool at hand: books. Books that don’t hit kids over the head with a message but take them along on a page-turning journey with someone who struggles with those same problems and comes out stronger on the other side. I love the way Erin Entrada Kelly deals with kids finding true connection in Hello, Universe and You Go First. Victoria Jamieson brings middle school challenges to life in All’s Faire in Middle School. And Aran the selkie finds strength in unexpected friendships in The Turning. He can do more than fit in. He can be himself. And as himself, he can belong.

About the Author:
Emily Whitman is the author of Radiant Darkness, and Wildwing, which won the Oregon National Book Award and was a Bank Street Best Book. Emily studied history and literature at Harvard and UC Berkeley. She teaches writing workshops at the Attic Institute, and writes poetry, prose, and nonfiction for educational publishers. She lives with her family in Portland, Oregon.