Julián Is a Mermaid: A Tenderhearted Story of Identity, Belonging, and the Courage to Be Yourself
By Maria Popova
“To be nobody-but-yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight,” E.E. Cummings offered in his advice to aspiring artists. “You’ve got to tell the world how to treat you,” James Baldwin argued two decades later in his fantastic forgotten conversation about identity with anthropologist Margaret Mead. “If the world tells you how you are going to be treated, you are in trouble.” Both the vulnerability and the courage of that world-telling are in direct proportion to our sense of otherness — to how far the teller diverges from society’s centuries-old, dogma-proscribed, limiting ideas about the correct way to be a human being.
A lovely celebration of the courage to tell the world who you are comes in Julián Is a Mermaid (public library) by Jessica Love — a sweet story of loving acceptance and the jubilant inner transformation that takes place when one is welcomed to be and to dream beyond society’s narrow templates of being and dreaming.
Whenever Julián goes to the swimming pool with his grandmother, he dreams of being a mermaid.
One day, on the subway ride home, he glimpses three beautiful women dressed as mermaids. He is instantly entranced.
“Abuela, I am also a mermaid,” he tells his grandmother shyly, the way one whispers a closely guarded innermost truth.
When Julián’s grandmother goes to take a bath, an idea alights to his enchanted mind: He sheds his boy-clothes and fashions a headdress out of a fern. Like a miniature Scarlett O’Hara, he transforms the window curtain into a long skirt, tying its end to resemble a mermaid’s tail.
Just as he is rejoicing in his self-creation, grandma returns from the bath, frowns, and walks away.
But she quickly returns to unsink Julián’s heart by handing him the perfect finishing touch for his mermaid regalia.
Julián takes her hand and follows her out of the house, through the streets, wondering where she is taking him. “You’ll see,” she says.
When they turn a corner near the boardwalk, Julián gasps at the sight of mermaids — throngs of them, of every size, shape, gender, and color.
New Yorkers would recognize the glorious spectacle as the famous Coney Island Mermaid Parade, which celebrates the beginning of summer. Under the sunshine of his grandmother’s unconditional love, Julián celebrates a different kind of personal beginning as they join the mermaids in the parade and an ecstatic sense of belonging washes over him.
Julián Is a Mermaid makes a fine addition to the best LBGT children’s books. Complement it with the immeasurably wonderful Jerome by Heart, then revisit Oliver Sacks on how narrative shapes our identity.
Illustrations © Jessica Love courtesy of Candlewick Press; photographs by Maria Popova
Published June 7, 2018