Julian Is A Mermaid, by Brooklyn-based author and illustrator Jessica Love, has won the 2019 Stonewall Book Award. It is also nominated for the prestigious Waterstones Children’s Book Prize.
The story follows Julian, a young boy, who sees women dressed up as mermaids on the New York City Subway. Inspired by this, he recreates their looks at home. When his Nana sees him donning lipstick, a shirt, and a headdress, she supports Julian. Nana gives Julian a pearl necklace and takes him to see the famous Coney Island Mermaid Parade.
It took Love about five years to write this book, following the realization that there are so few books on the market for genderqueer kids. Love was also influenced by her transgender friend, who wasn’t able to come out until later in life.
‘I have a friend who is trans, but he didn’t transition until much much later in life,’ Love told PinkNews. ‘He was in his 50s when he finally was able to live like a man, and that was the result of some pushback when he was younger.’
‘Talking to him and thinking about his journey got me curious about what kind of literature there is out there for kids who might be asking themselves these questions, and I started reading blogs of families who had children who were questioning their gender.’
Additionally, Love was enthralled by popular television series RuPaul’s Drag Race. This led her to think ‘a lot about costumes and what a profound thing playing dress-up actually is, and how to tell a story in which that particular magic is quietly celebrated.’
RuPaul himself even Tweeted an endorsement of the book last summer.
— RuPaul (@RuPaul) June 8, 2018
Initially, Love intended Julian to come across drag queens on their way to a ball. However, this shifted once she learned the significance of mermaid symbolism to trans people.
‘The mythical creatures have become symbolic to transgender people and their allies: they are depicted with nothing below their waists but a tail, while the Disney film The Little Mermaid has a main character who wants to change form — echoing the feelings of some trans people,’ writes Josh Jackman in PinkNews. ‘Such is the affinity between the two that the British trans children’s charity, Mermaids, derives its name from the beings.’
‘I was reading all these parenting blogs, and this theme of mermaids is a thread that runs through so many of these different kids’ experiences,’ Love recalls. ‘There’s something about mermaids. Who knows if that’s because they’re magical creatures who can live between two realities or because they don’t have any genitals, or because they’re fucking great.’
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For Love, being nominated for the Waterstones award was ‘one of the most shocking moments in my life. It felt like the laws of the universe had changed.’
In fact, Love never expected her book to take off at all — she originally intended to self-publish it.
‘I never expected I would be able to get it published,’ she says. ‘This is a very unexpected turn of events. All of the success of this book feels very, very surreal to me.’
Love has received a great deal of positive feedback from parents about her book.
‘Pretty shortly after the book came out, parents started to find me, on Instagram mostly, just to tell me how much their family had needed this story.’
‘I got to meet these kids when I started doing readings,’ says Love. ‘I remember the first time a parent brought in a kid who was like Julian. The mother and I just made eye contact, and she had a huge smile on her face.’
‘The child was wearing this gauzy lavender skirt and had made a headdress out of a long flowing veil. We didn’t talk about it all, she just came up and said: “This is Max.”’
‘But contained within that encounter was this unreal feeling of having reached the people I made Julian is a Mermaid for. It was gratifying in a way I’ve never experienced in any other arena.’