Julián Is a Mermaid by Jessica Love

Hello, Jessica! Thank you for telling Julián’s BEAUTIFUL story. I love everything about this book. The case cover. The endpapers. The setting. The characters. The final scene. Everything!!

Jessica Love: Hello Mr. Schu! Thank you for these kind words about Julián Is a Mermaid! The feeling I get when someone responds to the book is a difficult thing to describe; I spent six years working on it on my own, with no conviction it would ever see the light of day. And now it is suddenly, finally real. And people are holding it in their hands! It’s like watching many, many strangers unwrap a present I spent six years making for them. It’s completely thrilling and utterly bizarre at the same time.

Thank you for this beautiful present, and thank you for finishing my sentences. 

Julián Is a Mermaid tells the story of beauty. “What is it about?” Ever since I first started to draw the story I have struggled to answer this question. Most of the book is wordless, and the story unravels through the illustrations, which I believe are the story’s natural medium. Back when I first started working on it, people would ask me, “Oh, what’s it about?” I never knew how to answer them, because what I wanted to say was, “Uh, WELL, it’s about a feeling I am going to give you with the pictures that I haven’t painted yet. But it’s basically about the feeling we get from love and beauty! You know that feeling you can get sometimes from brushing up against real love? Or real beauty? Like a flower blooming inside your chest? Just, trust me, you’ll know what I mean when I finish it if I ever finish it!”
But that doesn’t really tell you anything about, you know, the actual plot.  

(Ten minutes later)

I have been trying for ten minutes to tell you the actual plot of the story and I cannot seem to do it. My attempts to tell you the story sound so clunky to me because I am essentially trying to translate from a visual to a verbal medium, but it is like a swan out of the water, waddling around on the lake-shore--it doesn’t give you a sense of what a swan is like in its natural element! I’m so sorry Mr. Schu, after 6 years I still can’t tell you the story of my own book! I can only seem to show you.

Julián’s Abuela sees right through you, to your secret heart, and honors you there. I believe there is alchemy in that kind of love.

The wordless spreads are wordless, but I hope they don’t feel quiet. I hope when you look at them you can still hear the subway, the ocean, music, the city, traffic, children playing, seagulls, bathwater, wind…

I myself love to swim. I grew up swimming in the Santa Ynez River all summer long. I swam underwater, with my eyes open. Now I swim at the YMCA. But there is still a very special feeling I get when I go underwater. It’s the thing that happens with noise, it isn’t that it is silent underwater, but suddenly you are definitely in another element. You are hearing water, and the blood in your own head, and everything else feels far, far away. It feels intimate, mysterious, and very private. I wanted the wordless spreads to give you that underwater feeling. Language can be so noisy sometimes-- yammering, naming, literalizing everything. I wanted much of this book to take place underwater both literally and, sort of, tonally. I wanted that private, magical shhhhhhhhhhhh to cast its spell as the reader moves through the story.

Broadway is where I created a lot of this book, actually. Back in 2015 I was doing a play by Jez Butterworth, called The River. Hugh Jackman was starring in it, and I had a teensy little part at the very end of the play. In fact, they didn’t even list me in the program because they wanted my appearance to be a “surprise.” This meant that I was sitting in my dressing room for two hours a day, eight shows a week. That is when I illustrated, beginning to end, my second draft of Julián, which, when complete, is what I shopped around to get a literary agent.

This feels quite fitting because I have always done theater and visual art side by side. I think they are two tributaries of the same river in me. Or some metaphor like that.

Story is participatory. I think it is a journey that someone makes in their imagination. As the storyteller, you are the invisible leader, taking the reader off the road and onto the path through the woods. My favorite storytellers are the ones who melt into the trees, leaving little cairns along the way so that you, the reader, feel you are using your brain, your nose, your eyes and ears to find the way.

Mr. Schu, you should have asked me about the paper! So the whole book is done by hand, on brown craft paper, in watercolor and gouache. Now, I painted this book beginning to end five times in total. The first three times I did it on white paper, and it was just...wrong. It looked wrong. The characters’ features were losing all this detail when we would scan the images because the contrast was too high. Then as I was getting ready to do the final art I had the idea to do the whole thing on brown paper. It would not only solve our contrast problem but it felt so much more in keeping with the key in which the book is played. This is not a world in which white is the default color, why does white have to be the neutral? So I proposed the idea to my editors that I do the whole book on brown paper and they agreed to let me try but we had no guarantee it would print well. However, as soon as I started working with the brown paper I became obsessed with it. Now it had to be on brown paper. It just made sense. The palate was able to pop so much more vividly, the character’s faces were showing up so much more clearly and it was like the whole book heaved a sigh of relief to be finally off of that glaring white page and nestled in a glowy, golden brown. The brand of the paper is Stonehenge, and the name of the tone is “faun”...which sounds about right, to me.

Borrow Julián Is a Mermaid from your school or public library. Whenever possible, please support independent bookshops. 


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