Jessica Love debuted with a splash this year when her picture book, Julián is a Mermaid, hit the shelves this spring. Love’s story is an empathetic telling of a boy whose passion is set ablaze by the sparkles and gowns of mermaids on parade in New York, and is a much-needed touchstone for children and adults alike on the discussion of individual expression. The Brooklyn-based author and illustrator answered our questions about her childhood literary idols, walking between worlds, and how to bring a character to life.
Your first book, Julián is a Mermaid, came out just this past April and was received with incredible acclaim from all sides of the children’s lit world. What do you think resonated most with readers who are so in love with your book?
I think it depends on the reader. Parents who have a child who identifies somewhere less typically depicted along the gender spectrum have expressed gratitude that the book doesn’t present Julián’s
difference in the context of it being a source of conflict, but rather a thing to be celebrated. Kids like the self-costuming, and the imagination-made-real elements. A lot of people have said they like that there are queer afro-latinx main characters without that being, necessarily, what the book is about. A lot of people just like Abuela’s pants. It’s enormously gratifying that people don’t all respond to the same thing in the book, because I really didn’t want it to feel “topic-y.” I wanted it to feel more like a play than like a movie, in which your eye can wander all over, and you can attach to the things you’re drawn to, rather than be told where to look.
I know you’ve mentioned your love for Hilary Knight in past interviews, and you’re in good company there. Did you relate most to Eloise as a kid, or was there some other literary character you saw yourself reflected in?
I mean, yes, Eloise is the patron saint of all little-girl maniacs, so of course I related to her. I also had a strong allegiance to the great literary redheads: Pippi, Anne, and Peter Pan. I liked the mischief-makers.
In addition to Knight, are there other illustrators or artists you remain entranced by?
My favorites were the always the ones in which the people are drawn specifically and eloquently–I loved anything that showed the whole body in motion. I was really hooked on all the later Oz books because of the fantastic illustrations by John R. Neill — I love black and white pen and ink drawings, and the insouciance of his pictures in those stories was hypnotizing to me. I loved Edmund Dulac’s palate, and the elegance of the illustrations: I really appreciated the way the artwork didn’t condescend to children. Cooper Eden’s illustrations in the wonderful Remember the Midnight Rainbow were big for me, the way each picture is a sort of zen koan. Barbara Berger’s Grandfather Twilight is so beautiful you just want to sort of rub your lips against it like fur. I love everything Lisbeth Zwerger has ever touched her pen to, I’m amazed by her ability to play with a wet medium rather than to dominate it.
Julián is a powerful story without being an “issue book,” shows without preaching, and meets young readers where they are without over-simplifying the topic of gender fluidity and expression. Can you tell us about some of the feedback you’ve gotten from your young audience?
Most of the verbal feedback comes from parents. I get emails from parents with boys who love dresses who say how difficult is is for them to find a book that celebrates the stuff their kid is into, rather than pointing up the difference as some sort of problem to be solved. I also get e-mails from parents who say that when they were reading the book their child responded, “He can’t wear that, he’s a boy!” and that book created a space for them to talk about these ideas of “for boys” and “for girls” and where they come from, and whether they are kind, or true.
But my favorite feedback is when a parent brings their child to a reading, and the child is a child like Julián. I was doing a storytime at a bookstore yesterday, and I met a child who was wearing a sheer pink veil on their head and a seafoam green skirt, and their mom just asked me to make the book out to “Max.” And as I was signing it she just quietly said, “your book means a lot to our family.” Getting to see Max, dressed to the nines in a pink veil and a seafoam skirt is a kind of non-verbal feedback that I get from an audience, and this is my favorite kind. I managed to make it out of the bookstore without crying but, like, barely.
You have a degree in Drama from Juilliard and are a working actor, which you’ve said has greatly helped your ability to get emotion across on the page. How else would you say drama and illustration are intertwined for you?
This is such a great question. I think both art forms have the same attraction for me, which is climbing inside of a character and revealing that interior. As an actor I’ve worked much more in theater than in film or television. When you’re in a play, the larger picture you are painting is quite tangible. You’re aware of the other elements contributing to the storytelling because you can see them and hear them (the sound design, the set, the costumes, the script, the staging). It is as though you are a figure in a (moving) painting.
With film and television though, it’s closer to being a figure which will later end up in a collage–you have no sense of your own context–and I find that both boring and difficult because it isn’t the part of the creative process I’m most interested in. I’m a shaper, I think, for better or worse. So when I’m acting, I am shaping myself (and curbing my impulse to shape everything around me as well), and when I’m drawing I have more control. But it’s the same basic process when I’m composing a picture as when I’m beginning a scene: I’m imagining myself into that character.
With acting, however, once you’re in, you’re trying to stay in. With drawing I’m constantly coming up for air to see what my hands are doing, and whether my chin is casting a shadow. I actually find that I use my theater training as a philosophical framework on which to sort of drape my visual art. One of the tenants of “good acting” is specificity. You don’t want to be a photocopy of a photocopy, rather, you want to be real. Or, not real, but true. I believe in this principal, and it’s the question I ask myself most in figuring out what isn’t working about a drawing: where on this page am I not being true? Where have I been lazy and drawn just a face instead of a person with thoughts?
Julián moves between worlds, trying out identities and testing boundaries. This is such a relatable theme regardless of your age or identity — I think there are certain places in all our experiences where we feel like we need to reconcile multiple worlds within ourselves or our communities. Is there a place you also feel like you’re between two worlds?
Um, YES. On a very practical level, I’m suddenly in the position of trying to have two careers. And I have no idea what that means or how to navigate it or if I have to choose, or which one is the “real” me. And I maybe don’t have to choose but sitting in the ambivalence of that is very uncomfortable for me. On a deeper level, I think the gap I experience between “myself alone” and “myself in the world” is always going to be work. I want to feel so comfortable with myself that there isn’t any difference between the two, but I ain’t there yet.
If you could put your own spin on any classic story, writing and/or illustrating, what would it be?
We can’t wait to see what you’re working on next! What can you tell us about any upcoming projects?
I want to do another book, and at the moment I have three ideas that I’m feeling out. I don’t want to say too much in detail because they’re still cooking, but I will say there will be heroines. There will portals and danger, and courage, and adventure.
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