In this delightful, mermaid-themed heartwarmer, gender is as fluid as the sea Julián dreams of swimming in. There's so much to praise in Julián Is a Mermaid, beginning with its original handling of the subject. This is no formulaic "it's fine for boys to be mermaids" story. Julián's imaginative transformation into a mermaid, and his actual transformation via costume, are conveyed via art alone. And by handling most of the story visually, author-illustrator Jessica Love avoids text that might clang or seem preachy. Love sets her story in a neighborhood that's urban -- Julián and Abuela take the subway, and girls cavort in a fire hydrant sprinkler -- but she slyly shows us that they also live near the ocean: That's a seagull, not a pigeon, strutting on the sidewalk.
The residents of the neighborhood are all brown-skinned, with characters who seem so real, we feel we've met them before. The opening art shows five older women in a pool, looking endearingly lumpy in their loudly patterned swimsuits. Abuela, with her lined face and seen-it-all, often inscrutable expression, is a character study in stern, no-nonsense love, and there's real dramatic tension when she discovers Julián dressed as mermaid. Is he in trouble? Julián's shyness as he hesitates behind the corner of the parade tugs at the heart. And Love fills the pages with sweet detail -- when Julián gazes in the mirror, he sees his mermaid self; the fantasy fish who bestows him his necklace has the same pattern as Abuela's summer shift. Start to finish, this story of gender and identity is a pleasure.