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.
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.