May 1, 2018

Let's Talk Illustrators #68: Jessica Love

Jessica Love’s debut Julián Is a Mermaid is a joyously perfect picture book with charm and beauty to spare. With minimal text and enchanting illustrations, readers join a young boy on a journey of self-discovery and emotional awakening. The loving and unquestioning support of his abuela while he's on this journey is beyond heart-warming, and it's a treasure that I plan to give to every child. Chatting with Jessica was an absolute delight, and I hope you enjoy a closer look at one of my favorite books of all time.

About the book:
While riding the subway home from the pool with his abuela one day, Julián notices three women spectacularly dressed up. Their hair billows in brilliant hues, their dresses end in fishtails, and their joy fills the train car. When Julián gets home, daydreaming of the magic he’s seen, all he can think about is dressing up just like the ladies in his own fabulous mermaid costume: a butter-yellow curtain for his tail, the fronds of a potted fern for his headdress. But what will Abuela think about the mess he makes—and even more importantly, what will she think about how Julián sees himself?

Peek underneath the dust jacket:

Let's talk Jessica Love!

LTPB: First of all, a huge congratulations on such a unique picture book debut! Where did the idea for Julián Is a Mermaid come from?

JL: I started work on this book 5 years ago. At the time I was with somebody who had an adult family member who had recently come out as trans. I remember the impact that his decision to transition had on the family, and how there were all these conversations going on about how to explain it to the younger members of the family--the kids. This made me curious about what kinds of books were available for families who want to have these conversations with their kids. I wanted to create a story that felt like it was being told from within the world of the child who is experiencing it, rather than told at the children who are reading it. I wanted it to be beautiful. And I wanted it to have brown skinned characters. Queer people of color are one of the most vulnerable populations in this country. And I wanted to make something beautiful about them. 

All that being said, I deliberately don't specify in the book how exactly Julián identifies. I have my own opinions, but I wanted the book to function as a door swinging open into a wide open colorful space with a huge and fabulous party. Allowing different children to read their own story on Juliáns allows that door to swing open as wide as it will go. 

LTPB: Your book is very sparse with text, so what conscious efforts did you make to have the visuals carry most of the weight of the book? How do you work to convey emotion and tone without text? How did you decide which moments needed that added emphasis of text?

JL: There was a time when Julián was going to be entirely wordless, and in fact it was on this premise that I sold the book to my publisher, Candlewick. But it became clear to me as I showed early sketches of the book to people that there was some information that was missing, and without it the story wouldn't actually make sense. One crucial point was that, without text, people just assumed Julián was a girl. And that is a very different story from the one I was trying to tell. So I talked it over with my editor and we identified the points of contact that really need text to ground them. That's why the first line of the book is "This is a boy named Julián." Once the reader has that information, they are free to begin their own journey within the story. 

I think, if I have a special skill as an illustrator, it's that I know what feelings look like on a face. I'm trained as an actor. I studied at Juilliard and have been acting in New York for the last 9 years. I spend a lot of time thinking about the different ways a the internal experience manifests itself on the outside. And because I can draw it, I don't have to say it. There is an immediacy to that kind of connection--it's what our brains are hardwired to do; see an expression on someone's face, mirror it, and thereby understand how they feel. Ta da! Empathy. That's how it works. And in bypassing text it allowed me to take the reader more deeply inside Julián's experience. There is one moment in the book, the emotional climax of the story, when Abuela discovers Julián all dressed up in the costume he has created, wearing a head dress and lipstick. And then, without saying a word, she leaves the room. And there are three beats in which Julián teeters on the brink of feeling and internalizing shame about who he is. I think, because the reader sees that happen, but isn't told how to feel about it, their own empathy is activated. They know what that feeling feels like, because they've felt it themselves. And then they want to protect this child from that bad feeling. And that's the whole idea. 

LTPB: How involved were you in the design of this book? How do you set about creating a set of endpapers? How do you use the endpapers as extensions of the central story?

JL: I was very, very, very lucky in my editors. My art editor Ann Stott has been with Candlewick from the beginning, and has worked on some of my very favorite books. And my editor, Katie Cunningham, basically saved the manuscript from the dustbin. Candlewick originally passed on the book, but it somehow ended up on Katie's desk, and she saw something in it, and asked to work on it with me. Because this is my first book, I had a lot to learn about how to tell a story within this medium. For example, we were trying to figure out how to tell the story that Julián and Abuela were coming from the YMCA or something, where Abuela was taking a water aerobics class. That's when my editors explained to me that the story actually begins with the endpapers. I created the spread of all the women floating in the pool, and Julián swimming underwater for the end pages, and then of the two of them walking to the train station for the title and dedication pages. We also added little storytelling details on the dust jacket of Julián and Abuela drying off in the locker room. I didn't realize that there was all this extra available storytelling real estate until they showed me how to use it. And the end pages at the back of the book--where Julián and all the ladies in Abuela's water aerobics class are transformed into mermaids as well? That was 100% Ann's idea and it's one of my favorite surprises in the book. 

LTPB: What did you use to create the illustrations in this book? Is this your preferred medium? How does your process change from book to book? 

JL: The book is done entirely by hand, with ink, gouache and watercolor. Originally the book was on white paper, but something about it just wasn't working. Because all of the characters in the book are brown skinned characters, and because I leave a fair amount of negative space in my illustrations, there was a problem with the contrast levels between the darker skinned characters and the bright whiteness of the page. We were losing details because the contrast was so extreme. 

That's when it occurred to me that the whole thing could be on brown paper. And once I had that idea I became obsessed with it because in the world of this book, white isn't the "neutral" or "default" color--brown is. I re-did the whole book from the beginning and as soon as I started working on the brown paper the story came alive. It just fit. Suddenly you could see details in the character's faces that weren't showing up before. It was like the brown paper just reached out and embraced the characters. The palate for the book is all pastels and pastels don't show up on white, but on brown they really pop. Ann and Katie were willing to give it a shot but we weren't sure how it would print, but we got lucky. I'm so glad they were willing to trust me as a first time author/illustrator with making this drastic change sort of late in the game. 

LTPB: What are you working on now? Anything you can show us?

JL: I'm starting to sketch for my next book––I haven't sold it yet or even gotten enough material together to do a proposal. But I know it's going to be a heroine adventure story that starts in Walt Whitman housing projects in Brooklyn. I think this is what the first page looks like:

LTPB: If you were to write a picture book autobiography, who would you want to illustrate it (dead or alive!), and why? 

JL: Hilary Knight, Hilary Knight, a thousand times Hilary Knight. I learned to draw from studying Eloise. The way he is able to capture physical and emotional life, and play counterpoint to the text revealing infinitely refracting layers is divine. I bow down before him. There are other illustrators whose line and composition is breathtaking (Aubrey Beardsley) or whose use of color teaches you what color is for (Lizbeth Zwerger), but there is such human comedy in Hilary Knight's drawings. He can draw farce. And that's what I would want my autobiography to look like.

Thank you so much to Jessica for taking time to answers some questions! Julián Is a Mermaid published from Candlewick Press on April 23!

Special thanks to Jessica and Candlewick for use of these images!

JULIAN IS A MERMAID. Copyright © 2018 by Jessica Love. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

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