Julián is back! In the sequel to the acclaimed 2019 picture book, Julián Is a Mermaid, Julián and his abuela are attending a wedding, where Julián meets a new friend and shows that he’s still full of imagination and a creative sense of style.
Julián at the Wedding, by Jessica Love (Candlewick), is as beautiful as its Stonewall Award-winning predecessor, with Love’s watercolor, gouache, and ink illustrations on warm tan kraft paper driving the story forward, helped by the few well-chosen words. As the story opens, we see Julián and his grandmother, both Afro-Latinx (as Love has stated), preparing to be in a wedding, which is “a party for love.” Today, he is wearing a lavender suit with shorts, along with fuchsia shoes that match his abuela’s dress and a fuchsia ribbon tied at his throat. The tails of his suit flare at the waist, almost skirt-like. His sense of fashion has a distinctly feminine flair—but there are many ways to convey that. There are happily now a growing number of books about gender creative boys who wear dresses or skirts, but gender creativity can take many forms. I like that Love went for something different here, but one that still feels true to what we know of Julián’s self-expression from the first book. He’s not showing up in a trim masculine suit with pants and a tie.
As they arrive at the wedding, they meet Marisol, a young girl whose own abuela is switching out Marisol’s baseball cap for a crown of flowers—another moment in which gender expression shows itself and that we’ll return to later. We meet the two brides, both Black women, one in a white dress with flowers throughout her Afro and the other with locs and a white suit. During the ceremony, they kiss as Julián and Marisol stand by. All-Black same-sex couples are unfortunately rare in picture books, and this expression of their love feels like much-needed representation.
At the reception, Julián and Marisol grow as bored as any two young children at a grown-up party, and sneak off to find amusement—but not before Marisol places her crown of flowers on Julián’s head, with a look indicating that she realizes it suits him better than her. They find a willow tree that Julián declares “a fairy house,” but while he is draping himself in its swooping branches, Marisol is running around with the brides’ dog, and dirties her dress beyond redemption. Julián, however, finds a solution. He gives Marisol his dress shirt, which extends past her waist, and ties some fluttering willow boughs around her shoulders to fall down her back. In a joyous moment, he spreads the tails of his suit jacket and the two of them imagine themselves borne aloft as butterflies.
Then the abuelas come over with understanding smiles. Marisol’s places the baseball cap back on Marisol’s head in a moment that parallels when Julián’s abuela gives him a beaded necklace in the first book. In an online Author’s Note (PDF), Love reflects on the two moments and the two books, saying:
I think of the two books as different verses of the same song, and that moment of handing over a talismanic object is the chorus. We ask children to perform their genders in different ways, and just as Julián’s nature is larger than the role society would ask him to play, Marisol’s nature doesn’t fit inside her dress. Because this is an experience Julián understands, he is able to use is empathy and creativity to help his friend move from shame into joy. They are both stories about finding a way of being at home in yourself, then finding the courage to share that self with the world.
When Julián, Marisol, and their abuelas go back to the wedding, everyone is dancing—couples of various genders, mostly people of color—and the flower-wreathed Julián and cap-wearing Marisol join in. At the end, the two children fall asleep with the brides’ dog under a tree, as the brides dance on and the abuelas eat cake.
Love’s art, as always, is exquisite. She once again shows her skill in capturing human emotions, from Julián and Marisol’s initial boredom to their later joy in mischief, to the abuelas’ bemused acceptance of their antics, to the easy rapport among the guests. She also gives us wonderful details throughout—the lacy tablecloth at the reception; Julián and Marisol’s imagined wings; the abuelas walking barefoot, shoes in hand, to find them; the Statue of Liberty in the background to anchor the story in a place and remind us this is as American a tale as any other.
Importantly, too, she depicts not just individuals, but a community—dancing, laughing, welcoming difference, and celebrating the ties of love—just as the original story is both about Julián’s individual desire to dress as a mermaid and also about finding a community of like-minded merpeople.
The best thing about having a second book about Julián is that we can learn more about him and his world in a way that honors his identity but that isn’t “about” it in the same way the first book was. Similarly, Kyle Lukoff’s Max and Friends series, about a transgender boy, starts with a book that is more about Max’s identity, but progresses to two volumes that are more about his friendships (without losing sight of how Max’s identity shapes him). Not that one-off books can’t be meaningful; just that we can sometimes learn more fully about the characters if we live with them for a while. Julián at the Wedding, in this respect, is a lovely continuation of his story.
While the response to Julián Is a Mermaid was overwhelmingly positive, Dr. Laura M. Jiménez offered some critical thoughts concerning Love’s identity as a cisgender White woman and how that may have impacted her telling of the story. Love herself has written “On being a white, cishet artist creating outside my experience,” in which she acknowledges her limitations and discusses what she did not only to research and speak with people but also to examine herself and her biases. Whether she got it right in either book is something each reader will need to consider for themselves. I, as a White, cisgender, Ashkenazi Jewish woman, think that Julián at the Wedding is a beautiful tale of self-expression, friendship, and love—but I recognize that that is filtered through my own identity and experiences.
I will also mention Jiménez’ citation of librarian Angie Manfredi, who opined about Julián Is a Mermaid that “it would NOT be getting this amount of love and attention if it were written by a gender non-conforming queer IPOC – it might not even have been published.” That feels unfortunately true. Even as many of us praise both it and its sequel, then, let us consider what Love herself wrote at her website:
As a part of my accountability practices I use a portion of my income from Julián is a Mermaid to support Black Lives Matter, Stacey Abrams’ excellent work with FairFight2020, The Okra Project and wherever I can I try to help bring authors and illustrators who are far less represented in the publishing industry to the attention of my editors, publishers, agent and the larger reading public.
How can we other White, cisgender folks similarly raise the voices of others who are less represented? How can we push schools, libraries, and publishers to do so? Those are bigger questions than I will tackle in this post, but I think it is vital that, like Love, we each reflect on and act on them in whatever ways we can.
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