Julian Is a Mermaid is a wonderfully imaginative story of a young Afro-Latinx boy who realizes he loves mermaids so much that he decides to be one. It began one day after he and his abuela take the subway home from the pool. Julian sees three beautiful mermaids from his subway seat, and he is mesmerized by their dress, accoutrements and amazing fishtails. When Julian and Abuela arrive home, he daydreams about being a mermaid. The illustrations of his transformation beautifully depict his daydream. While Abuela leaves Julian alone for a moment to take her bath, Julian’s imagination allows him to transform into a mermaid using fern clippings and flowers taken from Abuela’s vase to make a headdress and Abuela’s long white drapes for his mermaid tail. Before Abuela returns from her bath, he looks in the mirror and continues his transformation with her make-up. When Abuela sees him, she is noticeably surprised but composed. In fact, she hands him a string of pearls to place around his neck and takes him to join the other mermaids in New York’s Annual Mermaid Parade.
DEBORAH: Author-illustrator Jessica Love captures the intriguing qualities of childhood imagination and the human spirit that naturalizes this world of make-believe. Although the book reaches out to children who might be gender nonconforming, it also addresses the wonderment of childhood and the joy children feel when they are able to act through their imagination. Love’s exquisitely rendered illustrations give the reader that opportunity to share this wonderment and joy. On a more sobering note, the book leads the adult reader to reflect on one’s own positionality and comfort level with nonconforming play. Often adults suppress children’s imagination and creative play by insisting that they conform to gender norms. It should come as no surprise when children feel trapped by adult expectations.
Love gives adult readers a role model in Abuela, who kindly supports Julian and helps him to act on his dreams of becoming a mermaid. She shares in Julian’s enthusiasm by taking him to the mermaid parade. Abuela demonstrates how the adults in a child’s world might adjust and embrace the gender nonconforming child.
CELESTE: My initial response to Julián Is a Mermaid was pure aesthetic satisfaction. I find this book beautiful to look at without needing to read the text. The images swim on the page in more ways than one. Having read this text to 5 and 6-year-olds, I know how compelling the images are for young readers.
While reading the text, I thought of a young African American student whom I knew during his kindergarten to fourth grade years. He spent his playtime at recess and after school playing mermaid games despite his father’s objections. He would have delighted in this book! I imagine he might have seen himself in this book. I also imagine it could be satisfying to play and perform mermaidness openly. One of my favorite parts of Julián is the momentary fear that Abuela will be angry because he adorned himself in festive ways. Maybe she will police his gender? Maybe she will be angry about not asking to use her necklace? Maybe she will be angry about a mess? But she’s not angry, so that build-up of tension for the reader is lifted. She’s not angry.
I understand the concern that Love is an outsider to the community she writes about. The importance of #ownvoices cannot be underestimated. One of the criticisms that has been levied regarding this text is that culturally, Abuela would never be supportive of Julián’s gender performance. I don’t believe never is the right word here, but even if it is highly unlikely that she would take him to a mermaid parade, allowing him to be himself without judgement, that doesn’t mean that the fantasy of support shouldn’t be in a book.
Young kids of color need to see people, family members and others, in books who support their gender identities and performances. It is not only white children who need to see this, fantasy or reality, in books. All kids need to be allowed to imagine, with the help of books, their families accepting and supporting them for who they are, whether their own families do or not.
DEBORAH: Celeste and I agree that Julian Is a Mermaid is an excellent read for children and adults of all orientations. It provides the reader with a variety of entry points to discuss the story and its illustrations. Love has succeeded in enriching the lives of readers who will find that the book is filled with rich and vibrant messages.
Title: Julian Is a Mermaid
Author: Jessica Love
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Date Published: April 23, 2018
This is the first installment of December’s issue of My Take/Your Take. Check back each Wednesday to follow the conversation!