Like most parents, Matt de la Peña was blown away by the emotions he felt following the birth of his daughter three years ago. Not surprisingly, the writer and poet tried to process his feelings by putting pen to paper.
“I wanted to write a book about love that I could read to my daughter, but like everything I write, it morphed into something else,” said de la Peña, who won the 2016 Newbery Medal for his first picture book, Last Stop on Market Street (Putnam), illustrated by Christian Robinson. “It really became a look at the evolution of love in a child’s life. At birth, love is literally handed to them, but it gets more complicated as they grow up. There’s pain. There are challenges. I had to acknowledge that.”
The result, Love (Putnam, Jan. 2018), illustrated by Loren Long, is a poetic reckoning of the importance of love in a child’s life, and an honest admission that even love cannot conquer all. The finished picture book is the hybrid one might expect from de la Peña, whose books are set in urban landscapes, and Long, best known for his bestselling series about the tractor Otis, whose work shows the influence of the American Regionalist painters like Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood.
In illustrations that reflect America’s racial and socioeconomic diversity, Long depicts a different child on each page. One jumps through sprinklers, another needs comfort from a nightmare. “There are,” he acknowledges, “a few scenes in this book that you don’t see in your average picture book.”
In one—an illustration Long and de la Peña refer to as the “9/11 page”—an extended family is watching something on a flat screen TV. The matriarch attempts to block a toddler from seeing the TV. “She’s holding up her hand to tell the girl to stay put, and she’s doing it to protect the child,” Peña said.
Long’s two sons were four and six on September 11, 2001. “They heard about it and they saw images on TV even though we tried to shield them from it, which was impossible,” Long said. “We had to explain there are bad people in the world, but there are more good people and we’re among the good people.”
There is also an illustration of a boy cowering beneath a piano. De la Peña’s text reads, “It’s not only stars that flame out, you discover./It’s summers, too./And friendships,/And people.”
The collaborators had several ideas on how to illustrate that stanza, all of which, Long said, were “safer choices”—a grandparent’s funeral, a friend moving away, the death of a pet.
“But, in all openness, there’s addiction and divorce in my family. What I’m doing by putting that [whiskey] glass on the top of the piano is suggesting this exists, it happens. Half the kids who read this book could be that child under the piano— kids who have experienced their parents arguing, or divorcing, or who have lived with the consequences of addiction or alcoholism. I wanted to say, ‘We see you. You matter.’ ”
Both men knew, too, that their frankness could create controversy. “The boy under the piano could make the book less popular,” de la Peña said. “But we both agreed it belonged in the book. As someone who writes mostly YA, I have been thinking a lot about the rules of the writer for the very young: tell the truth, or preserve innocence? I would rather err on the side of telling the truth and not worry that Walmart will not carry the book. It’s a chance we have to take.”
To create the illustrations, Long tried something new, combining collaged monotypes with acrylic paint. “Matt’s text was a little bit raw and edgy and its subject matter is so complex that it needed something different—it needed risk,” he said. “My skills as a printmaker are not accomplished enough to create the entire book on the press, but I loved the texture of the prints and they had a quality I wanted—imperfection, like love itself.”
De la Peña and Long will tour to support the book beginning in January (see a video interview with both here), but the author has been already reading his poem aloud at conferences and to school groups this fall. At a school in Rome, Ga., he got the reaction he didn’t know he’d been hoping for: a third grade boy raised his hand when de la Peña finished and told him the poem had made him “feel something in my heart,” and recall the love his grandmother had always given him.
“He started to cry, then the teacher started to cry, then I was on the verge of tears,” de la Peña recalled. “Boys are taught not to feel, so the fact that my words had reached him and he felt comfortable telling me that in front of everybody made me feel so validated.”
Love by Matt de la Peña, illus. by Loren Long. Putnam, $17.99 Jan. 2018 ISBN 978-1-5247-4091-7