Children’s book author and illustrator Jessica Love will read from her books, Julián is a Mermaid and Julián at the Wedding at 10 a.m. on Saturday (March 27) in a Zoom event sponsored by the Haldane PTA. Register at bit.ly/jessica-love-PTA.
Your books address gender expression. Is there a right age to start talking about this with a child?
The younger the better. When kids are left alone to encounter this on their own, there is little innate judgement, just a kind of Zen curiosity. In my experience, it’s the adults that bring the hysteria and judgment into the room, and kids pick up on that grown-up energy about subjects deemed “fraught” or “difficult.” In many ways it’s about getting yourself back into that headspace of a child where you haven’t learned yet what society has deemed appropriate and you’re coming at these questions with a calm and open mind.
How do children react differently to the books than adults?
Children are much more likely to read the books visually. I tried to create a story that is legible without text. If adults love a novel, they may read it more than once. If children love a book, they will read it hundreds of times — it’s almost like a set of stage directions for a world they will occupy. They will furnish it with their own imagination, playing all the parts themselves.
You’re also an actor. Does that influence you as a writer?
They come from the same place, which is an interest in storytelling. I have done a lot of first-time productions, which is my favorite type of play to do, because you are in the room while it is taking shape, the playwright is present and you get to have conversations about structure, how the story is assembled and what makes it work. That served me when I started thinking about Julián. One of the greatest pleasures of theater is its inevitable self-consciousness — there is a wonderful falseness, or rather, a deliberate, collective make-believing that I tried to braid into my books.
You drew realistic bodies for the adults. Why did you take that approach?
The thing we respond to in representational art is specificity — when we can recognize some of the truth in a character, we trust the story. Seeing the physical life of the characters is what allows you to go on an emotional journey with them without a great deal of didactic text. We are good at reading emotional life in people’s faces and bodies.
Did you consider having it take longer for Julián’s grandmother to come around to letting him be himself?
This was a crucial point for me. Because this book is nearly wordless, a lot of 2-, 3- and 4-year-olds are reading it. If I had created a plot point in which Julián’s abuela shames him, it would have in many cases been a child’s first encounter with the idea that this form of self-expression is bad. I’ve had many parents and educators tell me they had trouble finding books that celebrate their kids for being exactly as they are without a narrative about struggle and shame and pain. Most of the books on the topic actually introduced the kids to the idea that there is something wrong with them, when that had never occurred to them. I want my books to feel like a little party — a story about being seen for who you are, by someone who loves you.