I have this vivid childhood memory of playing in my neighbour's backyard in the middle of winter. The snow had that smooth, icy crust over it that would shatter under foot. It wasn't snowball quality, or even good enough to dig a fort, but it was perfect for a mermaid.
The neighbours had kids about the same age as my brother and me, and I would often play with the daughter. On that particular winter day, we had constructed an elaborate story about being mermaids and we would drag ourselves along the surface of the snow as if we were pulling ourselves out of the water. See, we had to get completely out of the water before our fins would magically transform into human feet. I remember hoisting myself up on my hands, straightening my forearms to get my torso upright like Ariel, my legs not in metallic purple snow pants but transformed into a shiny purple tail.
As a teenager I would go swimming once a week with a girlfriend who shared the same fascination with mermaids and we would spend all our time in the deep end of the pool, diving as deep as we could and spinning in the water. During class, we would pass notes back and forth but she would usually just draw mermaids instead of writing words. I am pretty sure I still have a few of those drawings saved in one of my teenaged diaries.
Now an adult, that love of mermaids is still pretty strong (I have the tattoos to prove it!), which was the initial reason I was drawn to this picture book.
Julian is a young Latinx child who sees two beautiful mermaids on the subway ride home with his Abuela. Captivated, Julian imagines himself transforming into a mermaid: his hair grows and his legs become a graceful fishtail. When they arrive home, Julian decides to make this fantasy a reality and uses found materials in Abuela's apartment to complete his transformation. As he fastens the sheer curtains around his waist as a tail, Abuela interrupts him with a frown. There is a moment of suspense when Julian is unsure how Abuela will react, making the reader pause for just a second. Yet, nothing bad happens. Instead, Abuela embraces Julian for who he is and the story ends with a very full heart.
With gorgeous illustrations drawn on brown kraft paper, Julian is a Mermaid is visually rich. Love's use of colour creates images that feel as if they have been wetted by a tide, supple and full of magic. The sparse use of text throughout the book supports the complex visuals which makes this book wonderful for dialogic reading.
What I love most about this book is how it examines the fluidity of gender norms in children in a way that is not necessarily teachy-preachy or prescriptive, rather it feels much more like a celebration. Jessica Love describes it as being a "big, beautiful welcome home party" for any child who has ever seen themselves as being other, like opening a secret door to a world they never knew existed (Kirkus Review).
Want to know more? Check out this great interview with Jessica Love over at Kirkus Review