Jessica: I used to date someone who had an older brother who was trans who came out to his family later in life. I remember there being questions about how to explain this transition to the kids in the family. It made me curious about what sorts of books were out there for families who want to talk to their kids about gender and identity. I wanted to make a book that held the space for those conversations, without being prescriptive about how they should go.
Jessica: Julián is done in watercolor, gouache and ink on brown craft paper. The story started with character sketches, drawings of Julián and Abuela. My favorite illustrations have always been the ones where a character looks specific--looks like themselves. That is, for me, the deep joy of drawing. Being able to create a person who feels real. I did a fair amount of picture bounty-hunting at the New York Public Library's picture collection (a sort of proto google image search) gathering old art nouveau prints--I loved the idea of the early 20th century's decorative arts movement applied to contemporary New York City. I also did a lot of sketching on the subway, and in Coney Island. I really wanted the story to feel specific, because that's what makes it feel true. After doing the first draft of the book I had an idea about using brown paper, instead of white. Because all the characters in the book are brown skinned people, the more delicate shades of their skin weren't showing when we digitally scanned the illustrations, because the contrast was too sharp against the white, white paper. It occurred to me that it actually doesn't make sense to have white be the "neutral" color for this story, the neutral color for this story should be brown. So I did the whole book over again on brown paper, and suddenly you could see if a character was blushing, if one had slightly warmer toned skin, or if someone had a dimple. The colors became more vibrant. The whole book felt like it was suddenly at home on paper that was the color of a brown paper bag. There isn't a character in the book who is lighter-skinned than that color.
Jessica: For my money art isn't actually the object itself. I believe "art" is what happens when the thing the artist tosses out in to the universe like a ball, is caught. This is why I can't stand didactic children's books. The reader completes the circuit, making sense of the thing the artist has made. I think if the artist does not leave room for the reader to stretch, to fill in the blanks and make a connection, then there is no possibility of that electrical current jumping between the artist and the audience. I think my best work is always created with this alchemy in mind, when I am drawing for someone I will never meet, who may catch the ball I have tossed perhaps after I am dead, and feel that thrill of connection: they have been seen, thought of, and whispered to by someone they will never meet.
Jessica: I'm really, really terrifically bad at that part of the business. Well, I supposed you could say that I'm bad at the entire business part. The only thing I really do to advertise my work is I post my artwork on an Instagram account. It helps keep me on track to know that there are a couple hundred people I'm able to share whatever I'm working on with.
Jessica: My favorite part is the feeling of being in the current of a creative endeavor. There is always this quite tactile feeling at the beginning of a creating process where I am just wading through waist deep muck, metaphorically. I hate everything I'm drawing. But if I keep going there is this point where it turns, and I suddenly am being tugged towards the center of the river, and am being carried along by it. That moment is definitely the part that is the most pleasurable. The most challenging part is being absolutely dead broke all the time. I've spent the last 13 years working as a theater actor in New York City so I'm used to living on rice and beans and taking extra work everywhere I can find it. But it's exhausting. And it's discouraging that you can be working at the top of your game and still be unable to support yourself. The bloom is somewhat off the starving artist rose for me at this point. I don't need a lot I would just like to not feel panicked about money all the time.
Jessica: It is my hope that the book will speak for itself. I remember the first time somebody described to me the experience of sharing the book with his son. The first line of the book, and this was deliberate, is "This is a boy named Julián." And this man's son immediately said, "that can't be a boy! Mermaids are for girls!" and then they had a conversation about this idea, where it came from, and is it true. And that's exactly what I hoped the book would do, but I didn't know if it would work. It was enormously gratifying to see that it's able to stand on its own two legs, and do the thing it was designed to do.
Jessica: I have two more ideas for books I'm really excited to work on. I don't want to say too much about them but I can say for sure that there will be birds, and there will be heroines.
e: Thanks Jessica! Can't wait to see them!