Educate To Life - Montessori Notes

Fostering Acceptance:
Jessica Love's debut picture book
'Julian is a mermaid'

It took me three months to decide to buy this book and how I would read it to my daughter. 
I looked at it several times in store but still had mixed feelings about it, until I read an author's note about the genesis of the book in an instagram post which changed the direction of my interpretation, and convinced me to write a honest review about it.

Jessica Love's debut picture book was out in April in the US, and in June here in the UK: it had been flowing in my Instagram feed non-stop and it's been one of the most reviewed and celebrated book of the first half of the year.
And for a good reason, both artwork and story are truly beautiful and strikingly different.  
The book conveys an unconventional urban imagery and a strong message which is all about acceptance of diversity, self-expression and gender neutralism.
A message that has never been told before in these terms in a picture book for young children.

Julian is a young boy living in a NY suburb (probably Brooklyn). He is pictured taking the train home with his nana. As three women dressed as mermaids get on the train, Julian starts daydreaming about being a mermaid too: he imagines to free himself from his clothes and dive into the sea, carried away by a school of tropical fish.
At home he resumes the dream dressing up as a mermaid while his nana takes a bath. When she sees him, we are kept waiting for two spreads to find out her reaction. As we turn the page we see her handing one of her necklaces out to him, and then we follow them in the street, joining the Mermaid Parade.
The Coney Island Mermaid Parade usually takes place at the end of June to celebrate the beginning of the summer season: half-naked mermaids and mermen and other creatures covered in glitter and scales invade the streets of Coney Island for this annual marine carnival by the sea. 
So where were the mixed feelings coming from?
There is no clear mention to the parade in the book, which I feel would make the story more real and grounded and less surreal and open to interpretation. To those who don't know anything about it (quite likely) the story might look loaded with gender ambiguity, and the imagery might feel like trespassing into transgender territory.

Now, even though this might totally be in the author's intentions, as parents we might question the necessity of raising these themes to 4-6 year olds, who are the target readers of this book.
One of the images I struggled to give a reason to is the one featuring a Drag Queen (who is a small tribute to RuPaul) joining the parade.
RuPaul is noted for his indifference toward the gender-specific pronouns used to address him, as stated in his autobiography: "You can call me he. You can call me she. You can call me Regis and Kathie Lee; I don't care! Just as long as you call me."
At first I felt this was too much to take in terms of gender-free representation, and that the book was going beyond the aim of celebrating self-expression. 
The question doesn't come from bias and bigotry,  I absolutely endorse any reading focusing on dismantling gender stereotypes and encouraging a free definition of personal identity.
Mine was (and still is) a honest doubt about the suitability of these concepts to young children, which I have no answers for, since I don't have a degree in developmental psychology.
At the same time, women in the street were pictured just wearing swimsuits and sipping drinks. So in a way, the imagery was still keeping some stereotypes alive.

I still think there should be a note on the Coney Island Parade at the end of the book, it would make the job easier for the parents reading it, providing some background to that carnival of sea creatures on the beach. It would also remind adults which is the urban landscape where this story takes place, avoiding any overthinking and just embracing the artwork in this book as a photograph of real life, whether we like it or not, whether it's close to the one we live or quite distant.

Author Jessica Love said that she wanted to tell the story from the boy's perspective, not from the readers' perspective. Julian is a mermaid was in fact conceived as a silent book and words were added afterwards to make clear that Julian is a boy. 
The focus had to be on Julian's needs. 
That's where I came to the conclusion that I had to give up any 'adult' interpretation. 
Children are naturally free from prejudice: boys and girls will tend to identify with Julian to some extent, depending on their personality and experience.
My daughter for example was totally fascinated by the images showing Julian dressing up at his Nana's house (because it's something that she does and knows well) and was pretty much interested in her reaction and in the information I gave her about the parade, and that was it.
She has no prejudice on who can dress how, so there is no stereotype to dismantle, no confusion.

Julian is a mermaid is ultimately a tale about identity and art, full of urban folklore, bursting with empathy, humanity and unwavering acceptance.
Acceptance of all body types and people's different ways of expressing their individuality.
It also is a celebration of 'the transformational power of beauty'.
We know that this book is dedicated to the author's Nana: 'Art was this woman's lifeline, and she used it to pull herself out of all her life's oubliettes. Beauty is not frivolous, it is divine".
It's amazing how this this woman is portrayed: cool, kind, funny, compassionate. I absolutely fell in love with all her outfits:)
Despite being strongly characterised, Love draws all the Nanas in the world, women with the magical power of understanding children like no parent could do.

A note on the artwork: the gouache illustrations are made on brown paper, which allowed to keep the delicacy of the pastels and the glow of the skin tone, which would be underexposed on white paper. Again, Love questions the neutrality of white paper exactly the way she questions ethnic and gender stereotypes: the technique is part of the message, form is substance.
The first and end pages also deserve a mention as they end up being part of the story although they technically aren't. We fell in love with these nanas bathing in their cool swimsuits which finally turn into mermaid costumes, celebrating with Julian the beginning of summer.

An Italian edition is not available yet, although I expect it to be published soon. In the meantime, Italian readers can easily purchase the English one published by Walker Books, which is very easily readable, as the narration is super concise and this is pretty much a wordless book.
Julian is a Mermaid has been featured on the New York Times in a beautiful article about Picture books to help kids weather our age of anxiety.
Julian is a mermaid [June 2018] available on Amazon Books
Words & art by Jessica Love
English edition published by Walker Books
Reading age: 4+
Themes: Identity, Diversity, Self-expression

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