September 16, 2019

Children’s book featuring a trans protagonist wins major prize

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A picture book about a young boy dressing up as a mermaid has won The Klaus Flugge Prize. Founded to honour publisher Klaus Flugge, who set up Andersen Press in 1976 and discovered and published beloved illustrators including David McKee and Tony Ross, Julian is a Mermaid is the fourth book to win the prestigious prize. It tells the story of Julian who, while riding the subway home with his Nana one day, notices three women dressed spectacularly as mermaids. Julian longs to look like them, and with his Nana’s help creates his own costume so he can join the Mermaid Parade.

Illustrator Jessica Love has shared the personal story behind the book, inspired by the transformation of a friend and how he explained his change to younger family members:

“It got me curious about what sort of literature there was out there for families looking to have conversations with their children about identity, and how sometimes a person has to do a little more work to create the proper cover for their own book. I wanted to make something that didn’t feel didactic but that gave children a chance to experience this character’s inner life and identify with it. I wanted to give kids who identify with Julian a chance to see themselves reflected, but I also wanted kids who don’t identify with him a chance to get inside his experience and feel what it might be like.”

Love also took inspiration from her own family, as she grew up seeing her aunt and her wife as positive role models. She said to the Guardian:

“I never knew a world without strong, gay role models and I’ve seen the impact that has had on the second generation of my family. I wanted to make a book that provided that kind of support and pride of place, but quietly; subtly…

“For me, the coolest part has been the way different people respond to different elements in the story… There are some folks… who are there for the mermaid stuff, and some people who are there for the identity-affirmation stuff. People reach out to me on social media to tell me what it has meant to their families, to tell me that they were Julian when they were little.”

This came during a week when transphobia made headlines in the UK. The Telegraph reported on the analysis carried out by Dr Susan Matthews, an honorary senior research fellow in creative writing at Roehampton University. Looking at a selection of transgender books in primary schools, she claimed the medical knowledge on puberty blockers and transition presented is “inaccurate”, and that “potential harms are ignored, glossed over or falsified”, particularly citing a book called Can I Tell You About Gender Diversity? published by Jessica Kingsley. The book’s commissioning editor, Andrew Jame, responded by telling The Telegraph:

“The advice given in the book, especially referring to puberty blockers, is in line with NHS guidance and numerous LGBT charities and organisations who work with and support trans children and their families.”

Chair of the judges Julia Eccleshare said in the official statement about the prize that:

Julian is a Mermaid reminds us that picture books can make us understand the world differently and better; that they are for everyone. It is a ground-breaking book and has the qualities that Klaus Flugge has always championed in his own publishing.”

Fellow judge Farrah Serroukh, of the Centre For Literacy In Primary Education added:

“The illustrations say things that it would be difficult for words alone to express. The layers of meaning that can be inferred through each spread are rich, sophisticated and plentiful. Quite simply, it is a stunningly beautiful, heart-warming debut.”

Before publication of Julian is a Mermaid, which took five years to complete, Love was an out of work actor. Now she is working on a second book about Julian and his Nana. Living in Brooklyn, she was unable to attend the ceremony in London last week to receive her £5,000 prize which was instead accepted by Audrey Keri-Nagy, Art Director of Walker Books, but Love said on her win:

“My heart is in danger of popping. I put my whole soul into this book, but I didn’t allow myself to hope that it would lead to anything. In fact I firmly hedged my bets against it having any success at all, because it would have just been too painful to hope and then be disappointed. But then this happens, and I’m proven miraculously, incredibly, joyously wrong. I’m happier than I ever hoped I could be, and I am so grateful for this honour.”

Nikki Griffiths is the managing director of Melville House UK.

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