What would you do if you saw mermaids on the subway?

Who's it For?

Sharing at storytime or reading independently   3-7 years

Sharing and exploring through creative cross-curricular activities   4-10 years

Adapt our activities to suit your children’s interests and abilities 

About this book

What would you do if there were mermaids on the subway?

Nana doesn’t notice them, but Julian keeps staring at their gorgeous hair and silky tails. And as he watches them, he dreams he’s looking just as fabulous and swimming in a pearly ocean full of fish.

Julian imagines being a mermaid               Copyright Jessica Love for Walker Books

Back at Nana’s house, Julian admits shyly that he is “also a mermaid.”
“You be good,” says Nana, heading off to take a bath.
All Julian can think about is dressing up... but what will Nana say about the mess?

Luckily for Julian, Nana’s heart is big enough and wise enough to understand that what he needs is recognition and acceptance - and the chance to celebrate with others dressed in shiny tails and plumage, just like him!

Faultlessly observed, stylish and with an understated warmth that really makes it stand out, Julian is a Mermaid has something important to say about identity and self-esteem. Time spent with Julian allows us to see the world through his eyes and the joyful conclusion to his story is something we can all celebrate.

Why We've Chosen It

Every page in this lovely book explodes with space and light, creating stages for the characters to strut their stuff, and the minimal text gives them a voice while allowing us to observe, imagine and connect. So it doesn't come as a surprise to discover that Love has worked as a theatre actor for many years - she has the kind of understanding that comes from successfully inhabiting characters on stage, and extends these insights to her readers.

“My greatest hope was that the book would find not only the kids who immediately identify with Julian because they share certain characteristics - a love of dress-up, color, beauty - but that it would find the kids who don’t share those interests"

says Love in an interview for The Horn Book. “I wanted those kids who might start the book saying, “Hey, why is he in a dress? He’s a boy!” to go on the journey with him, feel empathy when he is downcast and elation when he finds his people. Because everyone knows what hope feels like. Everyone knows what shame feels like. Everyone knows what joy feels like. I hoped that if I made a... crumb-trail of emotional identification, that would bring everyone who reads the book, regardless of their own background or identity, safely through the forest and out into the sunshine.”

And what sunshine it is! From the very first pages Julian fizzes with colour and light, evoking the city streets with such force that we can almost smell the tarmac. Love’s dramatic sense of place and space creates an immersive and involving read, and her theatrical experience is evident in every gesture and expansive spread.

This is a book for mermaids and boys and girls and parents and teachers and booksellers and librarians and . . . aw, heck. Let’s just simplify things and say it’s a book for the human race. Lord knows there are some people out there that will need it. Let’s hope it finds the ones that need it most. Betsy Bird writing in the US School Library Journal, 2018: click here to read the full review

Sharing and talking about this book

Julian LOVES mermaids! What do you love? How does what you love create and define you?

Talk about the objects and activities your children value most.
How would you feel if you weren’t allowed to enjoy them or do these things any more?

Have your children ever worn special costumes for a play or parade? A family or cultural occasion?
Tell us about it! How did it feel to dress up or pretend to be someone else?

Show the cover and introduce Julian to your kids.
What’s he doing? How’s he feeling? How can you tell? Based on the cover, what questions do you have about this book?

Share the story as a reading-for-pleasure experience, drawing attention to details in the pictures as you go. Talk about the book and your responses to it.

Have your initial questions been answered? Is there anything you’d like to find out, or do, as a result of reading this book?

Did anything surprise you about this book? What, and why?

Who would you recommend this book to, and what would you tell them about it?

Reactions to this book will vary and reflect children’s ability to empathise, their self-esteem and sense of wellbeing, as well as their experience of gender roles. Encourage your kids to listen carefully to each other and respect differing opinions.

What will Nana say?                     Copyright Jessica Love for Walker Books

What next? Activities...

In this book, even the most minor characters are immensely expressive. Jessica Love knows what it’s like to bring a character to life on stage, and her creative process as an illustrator draws on this.

I have to understand what a character looks like,” she says, “(what they) feel like, how they carry themselves, the way they stand, what they want, what they're afraid of….” - Critterlit, Interview with Jessica Love

Explore by choosing a picture and freezeframing it. The spread showing Julian and Nana walking past the girls playing by the hydrant works well, as does the picture of Julian saying ”Oh!”

Girls playing by the hydrant                 Copyright Jessica Love for Walker Books

How does it feel to be your character? What are they thinking? Play ‘touch and tell’ to find out, then bring your freezeframe to life to see what happens next. What can you learn about these characters by adopting their postures and expressions? Look through the book together, finding examples and interpreting what you see.

These spreads are theatre, and there are no wasted gestures… as one reviewer puts it, it’s the “small but important details” that add the depth – “a wary look in the mirror, a slight inward slump of the shoulders, a chin held high while marching down the street….”

How many of these details can you spot, interpret and imitate?

Use post-its to annotate the pages of the book, adding notes about the gestures and what they tell you about the characters involved.

Every single person in this picture is a real person. If you followed that old man you’d get to see exactly what his life is like. If you stayed with the girls you’d get wrapped up in the fun and confusion of their world. When Jessica Love illustrates a human being, her brush has weight. That person has life. Betsy Bird writing in the US School Library Journal

Invent names and back stories for the peripheral characters in this book. What are they experiencing in each spread? Give these characters a voice by inviting them to comment on the action. How do they feel about what’s going on?

Can you tell or write the story from the point of view of one of these characters?

Love’s illustrations show how carefully she looked at the city and its inhabitants while working on this book. Close observation and drawing from life help children of all ages develop useful skills – so why not organise an expedition to gather evidence about your town or city, and do lots of drawing along the way?

Look at maps to plan your route and while you’re out, take photographs, make notes and sketches and collect tickets and postcards. Can you arrange a special 'drawing from life' opportunity while you’re out? Your local swimming pool might have a spectators’ gallery, or your shopping mall a quiet corner where children could sit and sketch the shopfronts.

Once you’re back, create a giant wall-map showing your neighbourhood. Mark where you’ve been and display your photos, sketches and other memorabilia.

Looking carefully at what’s there (rather than what you think is there) and exploring different kinds of mark-making to capture it can be a ‘flow’ activity; something that enables children to develop concentration, connect with the physical world and express themselves.


Having a well-stocked dressing-up box is a great way to kickstart imaginative storymaking, and when you’re working with Julian it really does make sense to enjoy and use those roleplay opportunities!

Julian loves dressing up....          Copyright Jessica Love for Walker Books

Source a collection of fabulously suitable items such as unwanted party clothes, scarves, fabric swatches and old curtains together with beads and other accessories. Provide a mirror and a table with drawing materials, templates for capturing costume ideas and a display area, so that children can make props and accessories and record their ideas.

Invite children to explore the dressing-up box and put together outfits for mermaids and other characters. Create character profiles, dialogues and roleplays, and develop through script and story writing.

New York’s Mermaid Parade takes place every year on Coney Island. Thousands of people enjoy the spectacle as local residents and artists come together to express themselves and celebrate.

Have you or your children taken part in a parade, carnival or similar celebration? Talk about your experiences, then host your own parade, involving children in every aspect of planning, preparing for and delivering your big event.

Nana and Julian at the Mermaid Parade                 Copyright Jessica Love for Walker Books

Will you invite guests and provide refreshments? How will you decorate your venue? And how will you record the fun and share it with others who can’t take part?

The pictures for this book were painted using gouache on brown paper which really makes the colours pop!

Talk about the illustrations.

What do you notice? What do you particularly like, and is there anything you don’t like? Do these pictures remind you of anywhere, or of another book? 

Traditional paint colours have great names – how many different shades can you spot? Look out for peach, marigold, indigo, aqua* and cadmium red… .. what else can you identify? You might need a colour wheel or artist’s paint chart to help you!

Experiment with watercolours, pastels and gouache on different colours, weights and types of paper. What works well? Pick a combination that appeals to you and create a finished piece that makes the most of the materials you’ve chosen. 

* Jessica Love refers to this as ‘van Gogh’s green’

Love’s decision to work on heavy brown paper was a late one. “The first… drafts of the story were on white…paper,” she says, “and something was not quite right about it. Because all of the characters in the book are brown-skinned people, when I scanned the paintings the contrast between the white negative space and the richer brown of, say, (Nana’s) face was so extreme that I was losing all of this detail in her features. And the… aqua and other pastels looked really washed out against the white, because pastels already have a great deal of white in them. Then right before the final artwork, it occurred to me that I could do the whole thing on brown paper, with gouache instead of watercolor… I had never worked with gouache before, but once I had the hang of it, it became clear that this was the medium the book was meant to be in. It also felt like a sort of aesthetic statement-of-purpose to make brown the “neutral” for this world, rather than white. Jessica Love talking to The Horn Book, 2018

For Jessica Love, writing and illustrating Julian was like directing a play and acting all the parts at the same time!

What would this picturebook be like as a play? Can you write a script for it and add stage directions? Draw, colour and cut out cardboard characters and fit them with handles. Cut access holes in the side of a box and remove the top.
Paint it and make scenery, then use your characters and script to create a mini-theatre performance.

Can you think of a time when you’ve judged somebody by the way they looked, or assumed something from their expression or because of who they were? Have any of those judgments been wrong?

Julian is a Mermaid is full of opportunities for talking about things that matter. Try the following starters, or create your own. 

  • If we love someone, should we allow them to do exactly what they want?
  • When is it right to challenge somebody about their behaviour, and when is it not right?
  • How can people ‘be themselves’?

To be nobody-but-yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight    (E.E. Cummings)

The first set of endpapers show Julian at the swimming pool.

When and where do you swim or play in the water? What happened last time you went swimming? What did you see, hear and smell when you were at the pool or beach?

Look at the sequence showing Julian swimming out of the subway car.

What do you think he’s feeling in these pictures? How can you tell?

The subway car begins to disappear...            Copyright Jessica Love for Walker Books

Ask children to copy Julian’s postures and expressions as he dresses up and swims with fish. How do you think he moves when he’s underwater? Try out some ideas and join them to create a mermaid sequence. Choose some watery music (or compose some!) and perform your sequences.

Narrow lengths of shimmery mermaid fabric (or a couple of water-coloured ribbons) will make interesting patterns if children hold them as they move

Collect words and phrases to describe your underwater world. Use this wordhoard to write descriptively or poetically about the picture of Julian swimming with the fish.

Create underwater dioramas in boxes using sand, shells and other tactile materials. Your dioramas could show imaginary scenes like the ones in this book, or you could research and represent real-world habitats.

For younger children, create a Julian is a Mermaid small-world playscene by filling a shallow container with water. Add pebbles, shells and toy sea-creatures. What will happen when the mermaids arrive? Introduce toy roleplay characters (or colour and cut out your own characters from waterproof materials) and invent some underwater stories…

If you liked this, try...

Can You Catch a Mermaid  by Jane Ray

The Mermaid of Zennor  by Charles Causley and Michael Foreman

Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress  by Christine Baldacchino and Isabelle Malenfant

Weslandia  by Paul Fleischman and Kevin Hawkes

Dogs Don't Do Ballet  by Anna Kemp and Sara Ogilvie

Pool  by Lee Jihyeon

The Dressing Up Dad  by Maudie Smith and Paul Howard

Julian is a Mermaid won the 2019 Klaus Flugge Award, presented annually for the most exciting and promising newcomer to children’s picture book illustration. The award was set up in honour of Klaus Flugge, founder of Andersen Press. You can find out more about the award here 
And here's a video of Jesscia Love acepting her award:

Julian is a Mermaid
 was shortlisted for the 2018 CILIP Kate Greenaway medal - find out more here

Resources for group leaders taking part in the CILIP Carnegie Greenaway Shadowing Scheme can be found here

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