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Five questions for Jessica Love

In Jessica Love’s picture book Julián Is a Mermaid (Candlewick, 4–7 years), the little-boy protagonist daydreams about becoming a mermaid. Left to his own devices, he fashions a mermaid costume from household items and applies a coat of lipstick…but what will Abuela think?

1. This is the best type of “message book” in that its messages — be yourself; live and let live — are always shown, never told. How organic was that process?

JL: I am a firm believer in avoiding proselytizing. When I was a kid, any book that tried to tell me what to think or feel was considered adulty bloviating and categorically dismissed. I think of art as not the object itself, but the thing that happens when a message travels from the artist to the audience. The thrill of discovering a piece of art that speaks directly to you and making the connections yourself is what completes the circuit. I consider it my job to toss the ball into the air. It is the reader’s job to catch it. That dynamic exchange of energy is the whole ballgame. So yes, keeping the message integral to the story, rather than shellacked on top of it, was very important to me.

2. Those colors in your illustrations. How did you choose that particular palette?

JL: Thank you — I’m glad you asked! The colors themselves are all of my favorites: aqua (or, as I always think of it, “van Gogh’s green”), peach, marigold, indigo, cadmium red. But here’s what’s interesting: the colors themselves are only half of what makes it work; the other half is the paper. The book is drawn on a heavy, brown craft paper roughly the color of a paper bag. But the first several drafts of the story (I drew the whole book from beginning to end many times over) were on white hot press watercolor paper, and something was not quite right about it. Because all of the characters in the book are brown-skinned people, when I scanned the paintings the contrast between the white negative space and the richer brown of, say, Abuela’s face was so extreme that I was losing all of this detail in her features. And the washes of aqua and the other pastels looked really washed out against the white, because pastels already have a great deal of white in them. Then right before the final artwork, it occurred to me that I could do the whole thing on brown paper, with gouache instead of watercolor (gouache is basically watercolor with chalk in it). I had never worked with gouache before, but once I had the hang of it, it became clear that this was the medium the book was meant to be in. It also felt like a sort of aesthetic statement-of-purpose to make brown the “neutral” for this world, rather than white.

3. Roger especially appreciated how Abuela not only accepts Julián as a mermaid, but leads him out to find his (mer)people. Was this always part of the story?

JL: It was! I think the greatest gift we can give is to try to see people for who they are, rather than who we need them to be. And I wanted Abuela to exemplify the kind of love that recognizes those green shoots of spirit pushing through the earth, and waters them.

4. Have you ever been to the Coney Island Mermaid Parade?

JL: Ohhhh yes. It’s the best. There is something deeply moving to me about costumes that people make for themselves, and that’s what the Mermaid Parade is. It is people dressed in the skin of their imagination.

5. You talked (in a recent interview with Julie Danielson) about “the strange inverse miracle of specificity-in-art: the more specific you get with a character, the more broadly people are able to identify with them.” What do you hope people see about themselves in Julián?

JL: My greatest hope was that the book would find not only the kids who immediately identify with Julián because they share certain characteristics (a love of dress-up, color, beauty), but that it would find the kids who don’t share those interests at all. I wanted those kids who might start the book saying, “Hey, why is he in a dress? He’s a boy!” to go on the journey with him, feel empathy when he is downcast and elation when he finds his people. Because everyone knows what hope feels like. Everyone knows what shame feels like. Everyone knows what joy feels like. I hoped that if I made a sort of crumb-trail of emotional identification, that would bring everyone who reads the book, regardless of their own background or identity, safely through the forest and out into the sunshine.

From the June 2018 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

About Elissa Gershowitz and Minh Lê

Elissa Gershowitz is executive editor of The Horn Book, Inc. Minh Lê is the author of Drawn Together, illustrated by Dan Santat, and Let Me Finish!, illustrated by Isabel Roxas. He blogs about children's literature at Bottom Shelf Books and writes and reviews for a variety of publications, including the New York Times, the Huffington Post, and The Horn Book Magazine. He served on the 2018 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award committee.

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Comments

  1. Peggy Adair says:

    Julian is a Mermaid MUST BE NOMINATED for a Caldecott Award!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    If I can contribute, suggest, cheer on…this, please direct me as to how!
    Thanks.

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