Mermaids, mythical moments, and the power of acceptance: Julián is a Mermaid

One of the nicest things about working in the Our Mythical Childhood project is looking in my office pigeonhole to see what interesting books have come in.  This morning it was this lovely picture book: Julián is a Mermaid, by Jessica Love.

Julián is a Mermaid, by Jessica Love

In it, a little boy named Julián is obsessed with mermaids.  He reads about them on the train, he imagines himself as one when he goes swimming, and he dresses up as one while his abuela (grandmother) is out of the room.

When his grandmother comes back to find Julián wearing a headdress from a potted plant and a flower arrangement and posing with her curtains as a fishtail, she frowns for a moment.  She then disappears for a moment, comes back dressed up herself and gives Julián a special necklace to complete his outfit, then takes him for a walk through the city streets, where they join a parade . . .  for mermaids.

It’s a moving moment, of acceptance and understanding, and of an adult making the effort to integrate a child into the community he wants to be part of.  Being a mermaid is of course a metaphor for thinking about identity, about gender roles, about finding one’s place in the world, and about facilitating that for children.  Jessica Love’s beautiful book encapsulates important ideas about difference and about love, acceptance, and integration.  I won’t show any of the images: you can find the book yourself and enjoy the discoveries within the way I did.

The necklace of acceptance

Children’s literature these days is doing important work thinking about empowerment, identity and acceptance.  It encourages empathy and understanding, and Julián is a Mermaid is an excellent example of a text that draws one in, to achieve the difficult feat of walking in someone else’s (mermaid) shoes.  Looking at how Love captures the play of emotions across Julián’s face as his grandmother leaves the room to get the necklace for him, I found myself becoming this little boy for a moment.  What would happen if she didn’t accept him?  What would he do, what would he become?  (Where would he go?  How would he manage?)  Thank goodness for grandmothers might be the subtext of this book, and the relief and joy I felt when she returns, bearing the necklace of acceptance, was palpable.

The parade Julián and his abuela join is the Coney Island Mermaid Parade, in Coney Island, New York.  I looked it up.  It celebrates the beginning of summer, has been held annually for 36 years, and looks like a lot of fun

 

Like so many parades, it’s an expression of the carnivalesque, of the acceptance and joy of difference, of creativity, of the mythical spirit within us all.

The power of momentary mythicalness

I’ve used the word moment a lot in this little piece, because I think Julián is a Mermaid is a book about the power of moments, about their power to give expression to the rest of our lives.  Children’s literature, folktales, fairytales and myths are full of such moments, when the imaginary comes into contact with, and transforms, the real.  At the moment of the story Julian is a Mermaid.  Who knows if he will be one all his life, or if the desire is a momentary part of the fleeting fluid magic of childhood imagination?  Like all good picture books, Julián is a Mermaid leaves the question open, to powerful and moving effect.

 

–Elizabeth Hale

 

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Our Mythical Week in Wellington

In mid-July, Liz Hale and I travelled to New Zealand, to attend and present at the biannual ACLAR (Australasian Children’s Literature Association for Research) conference at Victoria University of Wellington (VUW).  With Babette Puetz (Classics, VUW), we talked about classical reception in children’s literature. I spoke about Joan Holub and Suzanne Williams’s American Goddess Girl series; Babette spoke about Zeustian Logic, by New Zealand author Sabrina Malcolm; and Liz gave the ACLAR delegates a tour of the Our Mythical Childhood Survey.  The theme of the conference was ‘Houses of Learning,’ a topic that brought to light many rich texts and approaches.

We also had the opportunity to spend a couple of days researching in the Dorothy Neal White Collection of Children’s Literature at Te Puna, the National Library, of New Zealand, where we examined an array of children’s texts that engage with the classical world.

It was especially exciting to view texts by local New Zealand writers, including Ken Catran, author of the historical novels The Golden Prince (1999), Voyage with Jason (2000), and Odysseus (2005).  It was also fascinating to see how some of the Greek myths had been rendered as readers for New Zealand school children, another area of reception that is often under-represented.  Downstairs from the reading room, we joined a group making Maori masks, based on Cliff Whiting’s creation myth mural, ‘Te wehenga o Rangi rāua ko Papa.’

Classics and Kiwi Culture–Intersections and Invasions

My involvement in the Our Mythical Childhood project has heightened my awareness of the ways in which ancient myth invades our contemporary world, and on this trip I was particularly curious to see ways that classical and Kiwi culture intersect. One of the most explicit examples of their convergence is in the work of the lithographer Marian Maguire, who juxtaposes the iconography of Ancient Greek vase paintings with New Zealand’s colonial past, and with indigenous mythology. In one piece, Ajax and Achilles play dice at Milford Sound; in another, Captain Cook arrives on his boat bearing an ancient Greek vase. And in another still, Odysseus clings to the remnants of his raft, about to be blasted by the Maori god of the sea, Tangaroa.

I was fortunate to have the chance to see the collection of Maguire’s works displayed at the Classics Department at VUW and was struck by their clarity and precision. I was also struck by the remarkable way her work explores the resonance of the stories and artistic traditions of ancient Greece within another culture on the opposite side of the world. Although her work isn’t intended for children, it has important implications for the research questions at the heart of the OMC project, and I’m eager to read Maguire’s chapter in the recently published collection Athens to Aotearoa: Greece and Rome in New Zealand Literature and Society (2017), edited by Diana Burton, Jeff Tatum and Simon Perris of VUW’s Classics Department.

One lunchtime I visited Te Papa, the Museum of New Zealand, where I encountered Age of Fishes (1980), by Auckland artist Richard Killeen. It’s an arrangement of large silhouetted shapes hung on a white wall, in shades of blue, yellow, brown and black. While some of the cut-outs are recognisable as marine creatures, others are more abstract, and to my mind, some of them resemble the silhouettes of archaic pottery vessels.

Another of Killeen’s works, Welcome to the South Pacific (1979) happened to be on display in the VUW Council Chamber, where the ACLAR conference was held, and I enjoyed the interplay of the different elements, while also reflecting on the notion that I was beginning to recognise classical motifs even in the most abstract of shapes.

Frequency Illusion, Classics Style

Perhaps it was a simply a case of frequency illusion, a form of cognitive bias in which we register a concept and immediately begin to observe it everywhere. (Colloquially, the phenomenon is known as the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, after the West German militant group). On one city street, Pandora’s jewellery shop was located next to an interior design firm called Attica. And I noticed winged figures everywhere, not only at the library in Gerald McDermott’s retelling of the Icarus myth, Sun Flight (1980), but also on Te Papa’s colourful windows, and even on the hoodie of the man who made our morning coffee.

Back at home in Australia, I am still reflecting on how to make sense of these encounters, profound and frivolous.  The classical past is a rich depository of images, narratives, and motifs that the modern world continues to draw upon. My week in Wellington revealed that it is not merely within the pages of texts that ancient stories endure, but everywhere I look. I feel very fortunate to be taking part in the Our Mythical Childhood project, as it seeks to understand the myriad, diverse, and often surprising ways that the classical past infiltrates contemporary children’s culture.

–Miriam Riverlea, PhD Monash, is collaborating with Liz Hale on Classical Antiquity in Children’s Literature: An Alphabetical Odyssey.  It will be a guide to the field, taking into account issues of reception, children’s culture, and more.  Miriam’s PhD, My First Book of Greek Myths: Retelling Ancient Myths to Modern Children, can be read here.