musings, life lessons & poetry from Theresa Jarosz Alberti

Dragons and Mermaids and Unicorns, Oh My!

The truth is, the more I researched my topics, the more I discovered that maybe these creatures aren’t entirely fictional to everyone…

Last week I finished writing my third book in 3 months, (huzzah!). It was fun, it was grueling, and I learned some pretty weird things.

As some of you know, I sometimes write nonfiction educational books for kids. I hadn’t done one in a few years — unfortunately these writing jobs pay poorly and are a lot of work. But when an editor contacted me last fall, the topics were mythological creatures: fairies, vampires, werewolves and such. Irresistible! After all the frustrations I’ve had lately dealing with medical stuff and battling health insurance, I wanted some writing work. I requested the titles that sounded most fun to me: dragons, mermaids and unicorns.

There are a few challenging aspects to writing educational books. Mine were to be written at a 2nd grade level, which meant *really* simple sentences. The whole book is 800 words long (with some additional “back matter” sections on top of that). They are very structured— for instance, 200 words on the history of the creature, 200 words on anatomy, 200 words on behavior.

These books have to be heavily researched. I had to have references and footnotes from adult nonfiction sources (books and websites) for everything I wrote. Which meant I had to pore through material to answer such questions as, “What do dragons really look like? Why does a mermaid really carry a comb and mirror? What do unicorns actually do?”

People would laugh when I told them I was writing nonfiction about dragons, mermaids and unicorns. Of course it sounds silly, writing nonfiction on imaginary creatures. I would explain about researching the history behind the legends and how different cultures have their own versions, blah blah blah. But the truth is, the more I researched my topics, the more I discovered that maybe these creatures aren’t entirely fictional to everyone.

It’s undeniable that people are fascinated with mythical creatures. Eyes light up. People like to talk about them. They are fun. They Inject some whimsy into our lives, and remind us of the magic of imagination. There are whole worlds of fantasy built up around these creatures— books, movies, gaming, fandoms, cosplay… And it was absolutely fascinating to learn that almost every culture around the world has their own legends about dragons, mermaids and unicorns — unique stories and sometimes very different characteristics from the “standard version.”

It was also fascinating/puzzling/weird to see that some authors of my adult research books seemed to cross a line. I would read a phrase here and there and scrinch up my eyes…

You know… the TRUTH!

They seemed to be implying that dragons, or mermaids, or unicorns, were REAL?

Was this tongue-in-cheek? Were they just being playful? I’d read back over the text a few times for any hints of that, even look at the author’s bio. Honestly, the best I could determine was that these texts were written with the intent to be serious.

Here are just a few of the “Are You Serious??” things  I discovered:

  • In medieval times, items like dragon’s blood and ground unicorn horn were ingredients in medicines and recipes. An author would then point out, “these are rather hard to find nowadays.”
  • One author/dragonophile was insistent that dragons are often given a bad rap and they are not actually evil like they are portrayed. She set the record straight in discussing their personalities. Also, what to do if you find a dragon egg and how to care for the hatchling, recipes of what to feed a dragon, etc.
  • Books speculating on how dragons, mermaids and unicorns mate.
  • One book tried to make the argument that dragon sightings are down, but UFO sightings are increasing, so “there can be little doubt that at least some of the UFOs are actually flying dragons.” Many points of evidence are given for this argument.
  • An author of a mermaid book claimed some connection between mermaids and the dog star Sirius, implying that mercreatures are aliens from that far-away galaxy and everything from the Starbucks logo to the stars on the US flag point to the Earth’s special connection to this star.
  • Religious websites that claim that dragons were real because they are mentioned in the Bible, and they were killed off because of their connection to Satan. Dinosaurs, however, were never real, one of the reasons being God created the world in 6 actual days and that just doesn’t jive with Science’s facts that dinosaurs existed millions of years before people did. One site claimed that dinosaur fossils are just stones carved to look like bones, that dinosaurs were invented in the mid-1800s, and the only reason we believe in dinosaurs is because we were taught about them in school.

This was just some of the fun stuff I learned while researching these books. I could write a whole ‘nother book!

While writing this book, came across this cafe on our travels

At times it felt insane to be staying up late, pouring over research books and websites to get definitive answers on these elusive creatures… “what color is a Western dragon? Do Eastern dragons fly? What’s the difference between a siren and a mermaid? What do unicorns do all day?” Reading these research books made me question who is an authority anyway? Is it “true” just because someone wrote it in a nofic book?  And are only crazy people writing books on dragons, mermaids and unicorns?

Gulp. And what does that make *me* when these books come out next Fall?  I guess I’ll be joining their ranks.


  1. Claudia Mills

    I totally absolutely completely adore this!

    • Theresa Alberti

      Thanks so much, Claudia… that is high praise indeed, coming from you, my writer-friend!

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