When Jessica Love painstakingly wrote and illustrated her first book—about a gender-questioning child who finds acceptance from his grandmother—she didn’t think it would one day be nominated for the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize.
The prestigious award, created in 2005 to “to uncover hidden talent in children’s writing,” is handed out by British institution Waterstones to an author with no more than three published works.
On its shortlist this year is Love’s book, Julian is a Mermaid, which follows the titular child as he sees women dressed as mermaids on the New York subway and copies their look at home.
When his Nana sees him with lipstick, a skirt and headdress, she gives him a pearl necklace and takes him to the Coney Island Mermaid Parade.
Love, who lives in Brooklyn, created the barrier-breaking children’s book over the course of five years after realising there was a limited number of books about genderqueer kids.
“I have a friend who is trans, but he didn’t transition until much much later in life,” Love tells 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.”
She says that these discussions with her friend influenced her to do some research which led directly to Julian is a Mermaid.
“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,” says Love.
Love says that at the same time, she was also “watching RuPaul’s Drag Race and thinking 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.”
Love, who has been a theatre actor for the last decade, revealed that she initially intended to have Julian encounter drag queens on their way to a ball—until she saw the significance of mermaids 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. 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 says.
“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 f***ing great.
“But as soon as I noticed that, I was like: ‘Oh my god, there’s a parade in New York every summer called The Coney Island Mermaid Parade.'”
Julian is a Mermaid did better than Jessica Love ever expected
Julian is a Mermaid has taken off, winning the 2019 Stonewall Book Award before being nominated for the prestigious Waterstones honour, which Love calls “one of the most shocking moments in my life… it felt like the laws of the universe had changed.”
To say that Love didn’t see this success coming would be an understatement—she thought she would end up self-publishing the book and giving it to a few of her friends with children.
“I never expected I would be able to get it published.”
— Jessica Love
“I never expected I would be able to get it published,” she admits. “This is a very unexpected turn of events.
“All of the success of this book feels very, very surreal to me. It’s hard to trust that this is working out as well as it seems to be.”
Love says that she was “very proud” of the book, now that it is “going out into the world and making friends.”
Jessica Love overwhelmed by positive feedback for Julian is a Mermaid
The author has received praise from parents of gender-questioning children, which she says was “far and away the coolest part of this, and something I hadn’t really anticipated.
“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.”
She has also met people who the book touched, including a child who was wearing a costume inspired by Julian.
“It was gratifying in a way I’ve never experienced in any other arena.”
— Jessica Love
“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.
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“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.”
Jessica Love hopes Julian is a Mermaid can be oasis for trans people
Love wants the book to provide comfort to trans people in the US, who have seen their rights attacked since President Donald Trump came to power in 2017.
The Trump administration has rolled back guidance allowing trans students to use their toilet of choice, moved to ban trans servicepeople from the military and told government agencies to treat people based on “biological sex.”
“You’re loved. You’re beautiful. You are loved.”
— Jessica Love to trans children
“It feels pretty bleak here right now,” Love said, “and I don’t know the extent to which art can be effective propaganda or change anybody’s mind.
“I made the book in the spirit of a little comfort station by the side of the road, for people who are walking that incredibly difficult and demanding road.
“A little place to rest your heart for a minute in a parallel, gentler universe.”
She says that she hopes to convey the message to trans children that “you’re loved. You’re beautiful. You are loved.”