Love, Jessica. Julián is a Mermaid. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press, 2018.
In this utterly charming picture book, a young child dreams about being a mermaid—and finds unconditional love and support from his grandmother.
Julián and his Abuela live in Brooklyn, New York. They go swimming every Saturday morning. One day, riding home on the subway, Julian sees three women gloriously dressed up like mermaids, with long colorful hair, gold earrings, and glamorous sea-green gowns with mermaid tails. He can’t stop staring at them and imagining himself becoming a mermaid too.
When they arrive home, Abuela takes a bath and Julián, still mesmerized by the mermaid women, comes up with a great idea. He takes some fronds from a potted fern and puts them in his hair with a few cut flowers. Then he puts some of Abuela’s lipstick on. Finally, he uses the lacy yellow curtain as a skirt and ties a knot at the end to create a tail.
He looks and feels gorgeous! He parades around the living room until suddenly Abuela comes into the room and sees him. His excitement wanes as he worries about what Abuela might think. She leaves briefly but then comes back with a pink pearl necklace to compliment his outfit. Then they leave the house and she takes him to the Coney Island Mermaid Parade where he can be a proud mermaid among many other beautiful mer-beings.
It’s rare that a story with such minimal text can convey so many ideas and a relatively complex story, but Jessica Love’s dreamy watercolor paintings are incredibly expressive. Amidst fantastically varied and colorful fish and drifting waves and bubbles, Julián emerges as a confident mermaid. And in the living room, Julián’s expression conveys doubt, concern, and finally joy when Abuela confirms her unconditional love.
Julián is a Mermaid is a book about vivid imagination, identity, and familial support. But it’s also about Brooklyn, the subway and neighborhood communities, and quirky celebrations. It took me a little Internet searching to find out that there is indeed a mermaid festival and that it takes place in Coney Island. But folks who live in Brooklyn will immediately see their home wonderfully reflected in the evocative, brilliantly colored illustrations.
I don’t know Julián’s gender or sexual identity and he might not yet either. (I’m using he/him pronouns because that’s what the text uses.) The important thing is that he is free to dream and discover himself at his own pace, with the loving support of his grandmother. That said, gender nonconformity is a major theme, and young children who chafe at gendered expectations will be delighted by Julián.
Julián is a Mermaid has collected a LOT of awards and honors, among them a Stonewall Book Award, recognition as an ALSC Notable Children’s Book and a School Library Journal’s Best Books, and appearances on both the Rainbow Book List and the Horn Book Fanfare List.
Highly, highly recommended for all public and school libraries and all kids who dream big.