Celebrating Our Inner Mermaid
June 21, 2018 § 4 Comments
Before I sing the praises of Jessica Love’s triumphant, must-read new picture book, Julián is a Mermaid (Ages 4-8), a story celebrating self-love and unconditional acceptance, I need to come clean on something that happened four years ago in our house.
In 2014, when my children were four and seven, a box arrived from Penguin Group. In the box was a stack of picture books for possible review; all except one were titles I had requested. “I’m going to throw in an extra book, which I bet you would love to write about,” my rep and good pal, Sheila, had told me. My kids did what they do every time a box like this arrives: they dragged it over to the sofa, climbed up next to me, and began pulling out books for me to read. When they pulled out I am Jazz, I didn’t recognize the title or the cover, so I figured it was Sheila’s pick. We dove in blind.
I am Jazz is Jazz Jennings’ autobiographical picture book, co-written with Jessica Herthel, about what it was like to grow up with “a girl brain but a boy body.” From the earliest ages, Jazz identified as a girl. More than simply dressing up as princesses and mermaids, Jazz would correct her parents when they would say, “You’re such a good boy,” responding, “No, Mama. Good GIRL!” In Jazz’s case, it was her pediatrician who identified her as transgender and encouraged her parents to stop cutting her hair and putting her in boy clothing. Eventually, her teachers at school allowed her to join the girls’ soccer team, and she found a group of friends who saw her, not as someone to be teased or feared, but as “one of the nicest girls at school.”
I could feel the intensity in the air as I read. My children bent so far over the pages that I had to ask them to sit back so I could see the words. “Have I just opened a can of worms?” I thought. “Are they even old enough to understand this?” These were actual questions that went through my head.
When I finished reading, I asked if they wanted to talk about the book. “Nope!” they chorused, pulling out the next title from the box. And so, I moved on. And I don’t just mean with the next book. Later that day, I tucked I am Jazz inside one of the cabinets in our office. Are you getting this? I hid the book. I justified my action: “This is a great book, but I’ll get it out in a few years when they’re older. When it’s more applicable to their life or to someone they know.” Yes. I actually thought these things.
The very next day, I walked into my four-year-old daughter’s room to find her paging through the book. How on earth she found it I will never know. She beamed at me: “Mommy, Jazz likes all the same things I do: dance, soccer, swimming, and the color pink!” “Yes,” I said. And then, a few days later, when I was tidying up her room, I hid the book. Again.
A few weeks later, we had friends over for dinner. Long after everyone had finished eating, the adults were still lingering at the table, when my son barged in carrying our children’s dictionary, trailed by his sister and friends. “We need to throw out this dictionary,” he pronounced, with his typical fondness for the dramatic. “It is missing words.”
“What word are you trying to look up?” one of the grown-ups asked.
Instantly, I knew that I am Jazz was circulating around our house again; and—based on the looks everyone was exchanging around the table—making for some pretty riveting conversations upstairs.
As they do more times than I could ever count, my children held a mirror in front of my face. They illuminated my shortcoming—in this case, a bias—which I wasn’t even aware I had. We shouldn’t save “issues books” for the moments the issues arise. Heck, we shouldn’t even label them as “issues books.” My children were intrigued by the idea of transgender, sure, but I have since realized that their interest in this book extends well beyond definitions. I am Jazz is just one more tale in a long line of tales about kids trying to make sense of who they are—a journey every child faces, at every age. Even more, I am Jazz celebrates that journey. Jazz is brave and animated and refreshing. She is who she is, and she doesn’t apologize for that. What child wouldn’t be fascinated by her?
It may have taken three tries, but I am Jazz finally got a prominent place on our bookshelves, and I’m proud to say that, years later, it still floats in and out of both children’s rooms regularly. My children talk about Jazz like they know her, like she’s their friend. “We read Jazz’s book in school today!” my ten year old announced with excitement earlier this year. “Can you believe there were some kids who had never heard of her?” He went on: “My teacher used to date someone who is transgender. That’s cool, don’t you think?” That my children think this is cool—and not weird or scary or confused—owes a great deal to reading I am Jazz when they did.
Published earlier this spring, Julián is a Mermaid also raises the subject of gender identity, though it does so with a subtlety and ambiguity that would likely not have been possible were it not for predecessors like I am Jazz. With mesmerizing illustrations, just 23 short sentences, and as much unspoken as spelled out, this picture book is visual storytelling at its best. Julián’s journey unfolds only over the span of a few hours; and yet, encapsulated in these hours is a multi-faceted glimpse into how high the stakes are when we risk being seen for who we really are.
When the story opens, Julián is riding the subway with his abuela and reading a book about a subject near and dear to his heart: mermaids. A moment later, as he looks up, three tall, svelte women dance into his car, sporting elaborate hair styles and identical aquamarine fishtail dresses. We don’t need text to tell us what Julián is thinking: mermaids in the flesh.
As Julián watches these women, he begins to picture himself as a mermaid, fantasizing silently about throwing off his clothes, growing a gold-tipped pink tail, and swimming alongside a school of brightly-patterned fish through water colored the same shade of aquamarine as the ladies’ dresses.
A large, intricately-designed indigo blue fish approaches him with a necklace offering. In these waters, Julián is not only joyful and uninhibited; he (she) is also adored.
As Julián and his abuela depart the train and walk home, Julián’s mind is still on the three ladies.
“Abuela, did you see the mermaids?”
“I saw them, mijo.”
“Abuela, I am also a mermaid.”
At this point, it’s impossible to decipher what the boy’s grandmother makes of all this. Her coiffed white hair and voluminous shape combine with pronounced, imposing facial features, mostly bent towards frowning. Her only response to Julian declaring himself a mermaid is to peer silently down at him—and then, on the next page, inform him that she is going to take a bath and that he should “be good” while she’s out of the room.
The three nearly wordless double spreads that follow—as Julián dramatically sheds his clothes, rigs up a headpiece from flowers and palm fronds, and tears down the white lace curtains to create a mermaid tail—are so ripe with expression, movement, and gorgeousness, we fall completely in love with this child (if we weren’t already). Heck, you don’t even have to like mermaids—my daughter reminded me that she doesn’t—to agree that this costume is nothing short of extraordinary. And, yes, there is make-up involved.
Cue dramatic tension, as the grandmother emerges from the bathroom, wrapped in her own white swathe, and stands staring at her grandson, who is now posing like a Greek goddess. As abuela turns silently and walks off the page, Julián’s big eyes stare after her intensely, worriedly. On the next page, his expression turns downcast. He lifts the end of his tail, as if seeing it for the curtain it is. He glimpses himself in the mirror, as if struggling to recognize himself. There is not a single word of text—and yet, our hearts are in our throat, watching this child question himself. (In an interview featured on the blog, Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, author-illustrator Jessica Love talks about the evolution of her art for this book, which she originally painted on a white background, until she realized that layering color atop of brown paper bags actually allowed her to infuse the facial features of her brown-skinned characters with greater emotion. The result is pitch perfect and absolutely stunning.)
But then, the grandmother returns—“Come here, mijo”—wearing a colorful headscarf and an indigo dress with a white pattern that will be familiar (to observant readers) from the earlier aquatic scene of Julián’s imagination. She holds out a pink beaded necklace, which Julian takes with a wide grin.
Once again, abuela leads him outside and down the street. She leads him straight into the heart of the Coney Island Mermaid Parade, a crowd of people wearing octopus tentacles and jellyfish headpieces, swishing and swaying in unapologetically bright fabrics and tall heels. “Mermaids,” whispers Julián.
At last, abuela’s face seems to soften into a smile, as she says the words Julián most needs to hear: “Like you, mijo. Let’s join them.”
As Julián marches alongside these kindred spirits, alongside his accepting abuela, we glimpse in him the same joy and freedom from his private fantasy earlier in the day. We are reminded of the power of being seen, of being loved, for exactly who we are.
A postscript: This has been a gut-wrenching week of news, as we listen to reports of refugee children being separated—ripped apart—from their families at our border and by our government. Children who may never see their loved ones again. Julián is a Mermaid is not a political book. It is not a book with a shove-it-down-your-throat message. But it is a profoundly touching story about the power—the fundamental necessity—of unconditional familial love. About how, under the gentle tutelage of love and acceptance, children can bask in the joy of childhood, can grow into adults who take pride in themselves. Every child deserves this.
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Review copies by Penguin and Candlewick, respectively. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!