One of my favorite things about teaching is that I learn so much from my students. In my class The Queer and Trans Child we always start or end class by reading children’s books that focus on topics of gender and sexuality and this semester my students’ introduced me to one I had not heard of before, Julián is a Mermaid by Jessica Love. I am eager to share this book with others, and today I want to write about some of the some of the key themes of this book as I understand them, as well as my thoughts on the books Jacob’s New Dress and My Princess Boy. This weekend I also had the opportunity to attend a panel at NWSA about children’s literature, which included a presentation on Julián is a Mermaid and I will end this post with some of the main points from the talk and the Q and A afterwards.
But first, my class and our discussion of queer children’s books. My student told me about Julián is a Mermaid the day we read Jacob’s New Dress by Sarah and Ian Hoffman, which is one of my favorite children’s books about children’s gender nonconformity. It is about a gender-creative white boy who wants to wear a dress to school and who ends up making a dress with his mom. I love how the story subtly deals with the parents’ hesitation, even as they express love and support for him, and the book also captures the complex feelings that arise for Jacob throughout the story. Jacob faces some teasing from a classmate, Christopher, but also has an amazing accomplice/ally/friend, Emily who sticks up for him. Overall, I think this story highlights Jacob’s resilience, creativity (he makes a new dress with his mom), and the loving support of his parents.
That day we also read My Princess Boy by Cheryl Kilodavis which is note-worthy because it was the first book to feature a child of color who is gender-creative. Like Jacob’s New Dress this book is about a boy who loves dresses, as well as pink and princess things, and it focuses on his relationship to his loving parents. It is written in the voice of the mother, who affirms her support of her kid, but also focuses a lot on the negative reactions from other people around them. While I recognize that this is the reality of many families’ stories, I worry that it does not create space for the ways that children may also find support and that it contributes to a narrative of stigma that is often attached to LGBT/gender non-conforming kids. Another aspect of the book that I find troubling is that the people in the illustrations do not have faces, which seems particularly problematic given that the characters are black folks. Perhaps it was a decision made so the reader could imagine themself as the protagonist, but it feels dehumanizing to me.
In our class discussion we talked about the lack of representation of people of color in children’s literature in general, and specifically in books about children’s gender and sexuality, and that is when one of my students’ said, “Have you heard about Julián is a Mermaid?” I hadn’t, and was excited to learn about it, especially when we looked at a few pages of it online, and I immediately ordered a physical copy when I returned to my office.
Julián is a Mermaid is truly a beautiful book. I love that it tells most of the story through pictures, with just some dialogue between the characters to move the story along. This book also highlights a variety of beautiful, diverse, black and brown bodies which are seen as Julián and his abuela take the train (yay for representations of public transport!) and walk through their neighborhood. I love that Julián’s grandmother speaks to him in Spanish. And I also love the subtlety and intimacy of the moment when Julián’s abuela comes out of the shower and discovers him all dressed up as a mermaid. Young kids will surely love the simple, bright, warm illustrations, and there are lots of moments that will spark discussion with caregivers and adults who read this book with kids.
Given how much I love this book, I was excited to discover it was going to be a part of a panel that I went to at the National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA) conference this weekend. The whole weekend was fantastic; I met a bunch of folks doing work on trans and queer kids, and enjoyed reconnecting with folks doing this work that I have met at previous conferences.
Julián is a Mermaid was discussed during Jennifer Lynn Miller’s presentation called “Picturing Queerness: A Study of Queerness in Children’s Picture Books” which was a part of the panel “Disrupting Hegemonic Social Imaginaries in Children’s Culture.” She discussed the way that children’s books only started addressing children’s queerness in the early 2000s, and she analyzed 10,000 Dresses, Julián is a Mermaid, and a book I hadn’t heard about before called Jerome by Heart. I loved what she said about the queer world making potential of children’s books and the ways that these books both show the suppression of queer desire/behavior that can happen in families as well as the ways that family can be queered and children’s desire/expression supported within a family structure. She argues that the new queer kids literature is disruptive and does not accept restrictive worlds.
I especially enjoyed her close reading of Julián is a Mermaid, and I thought sharing some of her work would be a perfect closing to this blog post that I have been working on for a few weeks now! (It means that this post is going to get a bit long, but I think Miller’s work is worth sharing.)
Miller argues that Julián is a Mermaid celebrates femininity, gender-nonconformity and queer family bonds. I loved her focus on the eye contact that is maintained between Julián and his abuela over the course of several pages and how this reflects the love and support between them. She also offers a close reading of Julián’s underwater day-dreams and argues that dreams are key to queer desires and subjectivities. She points out the quiet acceptance that I noted above, when Julián’s grandmother comes out of the shower, and describes how Abuela is supportive through gesture, gaze, and simple comments. (Edited to add: You can read her review of the book on her blog here.)
During the Q and A one commentor brought up the fact that some people argue that Juliàn is a trans child and that it should be discussed as a book about a trans child and not a book about queer sexuality. Miller clarified that she is not using queer to just mean sexuality, it can also refer to expression and gender. She and I both commented that we think part of what is so powerful about the story is the ambiguity and the fact that Julián might be a trans girl or a gender-creative boy and that the story leaves it open in regards to who Julián might become. Apparently some have also critiqued this book because it is thought to be impossible for a Hispanic abuela to be accepting. Miller conceded that many abuelas might not be, but that also many abuelas are, and that that story is important too.
Another person commented that it is problematic and disappointing that Jessica Love is white. I understand that this is complicated but I pushed back against that comment, pointing out that Love lives in the the neighborhood depicted and that many of the characters are based on her friends. (I follow Jessica Love on Instagram and she has talked about that there). Miller also pointed out that people think the Mermaid parade at the end is a metaphor but it is an actual event that happens in Brooklyn every year. She argued for the importance of books being written by a variety of authors and not only by people who hold a specific identity. I would agree, My Princess Boy is written by a black mom and I do not think it is the best representation of a gender-creative child. (Of course authors are not the only one in control of how a book turns out, and perhaps it was the editor of My Princess Boy who made the decisions about the illustrations).
That said, reflecting on this discussion afterwards I felt that I might have failed to properly acknowledge what it means for a white woman to write a story about a brown boy and his abuela. And I left the session feeling uncomfortable that both of us, two white people, had primarily dismissed the critique about white authorship, and had immediately jumped to Jessica Love’s defense. I wonder how more space could have been held to discuss the issues of a mostly white publishing industry, and ways to hold white authors accountable, and how we can support the work of black and brown authors. Miller did mention Flamingo Rampant Press which produces children’s books with diverse characters in terms of gender, race, ability, nationality, family structure and more.
It’s exciting that more and more queer children’s books are coming out and that people are writing about them. I hope that this post will encourage my readers to check out Julián is a Mermaid, and the other books mentioned in this post–I can’t wait to buy a copy of Jerome by Heart, it is an adorable book about friendship and queer love.
I also am excited to announce that I am now on the board of directors of Invisible Strings, a queer children’s bookstore that will be opening in 2020 in Oregon. I will keep you posted as that project continues to unfold!
Finally, a small note to say that there was a baby/toddler who attended the panel about children’s queer literature, which was lovely. I appreciated that all of the attendees were loving and inviting to the child as they explored the space and interacted with folks. They were so cute! It was neat to have a young one in an academic space, and it felt especially appropriate given that it was a children’s cultures panel.