Children’s Book Reviews: A Trio of Stories That Explore the Meaning of Love

By Cyrisse Jaffee

Three looks at love that may help generate some interesting conversations about what love means in the lives of children.

What Is Love? by Mac Barnett. Illustrated by Carson Ellis. Chronicle Books, 2021. See You Soon by Mariame Kaba. Illustrated by Bianca Diaz. Haymarket Books, 2022. Wrinkles by JR. Text by Julie Pugeat. Phaidon Press, 2019.

In Mac Barnett’s new book, What is Love?, a young boy poses the age-old question to his grandmother, who tells him to “go out into the world” to find the answer.

As he travels, the boy asks various people — a fisherman, actor, cat, carpenter, farmer, soldier, cart driver, poet, and more — whose answers generally involve what each one does. For the fisherman, it’s a fish; for the actor, it’s applause; for the cat, it’s the night; for the farmer, it’s a seed….and so on. The boy rejects each answer for one reason or another (fish are slimy, applause is fleeting, the poet’s words are too long). Each person then tells him, “You don’t understand.” When he finally reaches home again, he realizes that love is, in fact, his grandmother and all the familiar comforts of home.

While the gouache illustrations by Caldecott Honor winner Carson Ellis are lovely, the language is poetic, and message heart-warming, adults might find the narrative puzzling at times. For instance, why does love equal fish for the fisherman, when it’s his job to catch and kill them (in the book he kisses them and throws them back)? Many of the answers that the boy doesn’t like seem valid (e.g., “the first snow in winter, a maple in summer”). But children may not be so focused on the logic of the text nor the idea that it’s only through maturity that you can recognize what you most value in life. Instead, children may respond to the general sense of love being the comfort and security you find in your family.

Reading this with children may help create some interesting conversations about what love means in your lives. Perhaps it could inspire children to compose their own version of What is Love? And isn’t that — child on your lap, a shared moment, exchanging feelings and thoughts — what love is, after all?

A very different love story, See You Soon by Mariame Kaba, illustrated by Bianca Diaz, explores the love six-year-old Reyna has for her mom (and grandmother). Despite happy times together, Reyna’s mom is sometimes “sick” and has to go away. Today Reyna’s mom must report to the county jail, where she will be incarcerated for two years. The narrative is vague on why (a mean girl tells Reyna that her mom is a “junkie,” and it’s not clear if previous absences were for rehab or something else). Children — and adults — may be confused about why the mom must surrender herself to prison. However, Reyna’s feelings of sadness, fear, and worry are unambiguous. Reyna is consoled by a cozy new quilt with pictures of herself and her mother, a letter from her mom, and the promise of a visit in a few weeks. Her grandmother also offers reassurance and support. Aided by the beautiful, colorful illustrations, this is a warm and sympathetic view of a situation that may or may not be familiar to your child. If not, it can help children gain insight and empathy for others who must endure separation from a beloved parent. (An afterword with ideas on how to talk with children about issues in the book, especially why not only “bad” people go to jail, would have been helpful.)

Love of an entirely different sort is at the center of Wrinkles, by urban street artist JR, text by Julie Pugeat. The 23 black-and-white up-close portraits, originally part of a six-city international project called “The Wrinkles of the City,” express the playfulness, wisdom, and beauty of the worn faces. (Their stories in brief are provided at the end of the book.) Despite some clichés (“Wrinkles tell the story of someone’s life”), the intimacy and vibrancy of the photographs provide a deeper perspective. They reveal not only the love of the artist for his subjects but, by extension, an embrace of the richness and diversity of humans. It’s a great way to combat ageism and to reinforce the notion that old people are essential members of society.

Cyrisse Jaffee is a former children’s and YA librarian, a children’s book editor and book reviewer, and a creator of educational materials for WGBH. She holds a master’s degree in Library Science from Simmons College and lives in Newton, MA.

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