Julian Is a Mermaid
40pp., hbk., RRP $A24.99
Going home on the subway with his grandmother, Julian spots three glamorous women dressed as mermaids and is immediately transported to his imaginary world living under the sea as a mermaid, at one with the creatures there. He is pulled from his reverie as the train reaches his stop but the memory lingers and once he is home and his grandmother goes to have a bath, he uses the things in her apartment to transform himself – plant fronds for flowing, hair, lacy curtains for a splendid tail, and some lipstick. But then his grandmother comes out – will she scold him for becoming something so feminine or will she embrace his imagination and diversity?
In what is almost a wordless picture book, the reader has to immerse themselves in the pictures to really engage with this story that challenges the stereotype of being a mermaid being a girl’s dream and celebrates diversity, being true to yourself and accepted for that.
One can imagine the eyebrows that would be raised on an Australian metro train should three glamorous women dressed as mermaids get on, each confident in themselves and their dress (reminiscent of the costumes of Priscilla, Queen of the desert)- but this is New York and instead of derision they encourage a young child to dream and then make that dream a reality.
His grandmother, somewhat overweight but nevertheless flamboyant in her own style, is clearly very comfortable in her own skin, not driven by the expectations of others and definitely not the stereotype grey-hair-and-knitting that is so commonly portrayed in stories, and so it is not surprising that she embraces Julian’s desires and takes him to a place where he can truly belong.
Because so much of the story is told in the illustrations, they have to be superb and they are. From the stunning undersea creature presenting the mermaid Julian with a coral necklace to the characters that Julian and his grandmother pass in the street, indeed even the women in the pool in the endpages, each with is imbued with personality and confidence and pride in who they are.
This is a book that demands close reading and reflection so its riches are revealed; it is one that will raise questions and demand explanations; but to those who are like Julian and dream of things that are beyond the traditional stereotype bounded by gender, it will bring comfort and maybe confidence so they too can be themselves.
Originally published June 28 2018
Updated February 2023