I’m super nervous about this post. Sure, I haven’t been in Canada for two-ish years now (I refuse to look up the exact dates lest I cry) but that doesn’t mean I want my citizenship revoked and to be barred entry for the foreseeable future. And I’m worried that if I write this wrong, I’ll get a letter from Passports Canada politely requesting my passport be returned so they can KEEP ME OUT FOREVER. So, up front: Robert Munsch is a treasure and I love him and I’ve written about my love of him and he is just amazing. But here’s the thing– I think that Mac Barnett and Carson Ellis’s new masterpiece (and there’s no other word for it, it’s a work of art) What Is Love? is like Love You Forever but for everyone not in Canada.
Allow me to explain, please! Don’t take my passport! I ABSOLUTELY want non-Canadians to see the glory that is Canadian literature. I think it doesn’t cross the border nearly enough and that’s one of the reasons I actively try to talk about it here! I talk about amazing Canadian illustrators, I talk about reading about war on Remembrance Day. But I also know that some books require a certain kind of experience, Robert Munsch started with storytelling, and if you’ve never heard him tell you (and it does feel like he’s talking just to you) Love You Forever, you haven’t gotten the full experience. I know Love You Forever is the book by Bob Munsch that really crossed that border to the USA, along with The Paper Bag Princess. But I also know American booksellers who can’t stand it. They think it’s corny and sentimental. They don’t love the art. I say, “Wow, really? Wait– have you heard him read it? Do you know the tune to the song?” No, and they don’t. Whereas I remember being in the car with my parents and my sister, and we put on the radio, and I’m a teenager mind you, and Bob Munsch starts reading Love You Forever, and next thing I know we’re chuckling along, sighing at the key bits, and then we’re all sobbing and my dad’s pulled over to the shoulder of the highway because he’s the kind of responsible driver who knows not to drive while tears are pouring down his face. It’s a story narrated with a chuckle here and a sigh there, a groan here and a lump in your throat there. You can’t get the full effect just by picking it up and reading, not without the voice. Every Canadian child knows the original Hockey Night in Canada theme music– and can sing you the song from Love You Forever. This is simply not the case in Brookline, MA, it’s just not, and that’s why I’m so, so, SO glad that Mac Barnett and Carson Ellis came together to create a book that has the chuckles, the sighs, the occasional groan, but very much the lump in the throat, all in the book itself.
And the thing is? I don’t think Mac Barnett could have achieved this if he were not, also, the consummate storyteller, completely in the same line as Bob Munsch: everyone who’s listened to the sage of Grump Grumpus on his book club knows this. And Carson Ellis is a genius communicator with her art, conveying beauty, feeling, and humour. But: this book was not generated as an oral narrative, and while it’s beautiful to read aloud, it needs to be read with the book, the beautiful, physical, delicious book of gorgeous art. Any reader of any age will hear, see, and absorb this on their level, but the book itself is necessary. Now, I did have the absolute joy of hearing Mac Barnett read it aloud on his Instagram book club and then watching Carson Ellis draw some beautiful art of what love was to the children watching. It was a joyful experience, and I laughed and sighed and got choked up. But you, too, reading this with your kids, grandkids, or friends will have that experience, when you buy it and read it with them. Or to yourself.
(Side note to Passports Canada: I’m not saying that the national experience of being “in” on the true, essential meaning of Love You Forever isn’t special, though, ok? Honestly, I will cry if you take my passport.)
I’m trying to nail what makes this book so palpable an emotional experience, and I don’t think it’s just the skill of the writer and the skill of the artist, though, certainly, those are essential. I have seen plenty of books about love for kids. They can be very nice by skillful authors and illustrators. And they can be corny and sentimental, even when created by skillful authors and illustrators. But this is different, and the answer is in the collaboration.
First, the “I” in the book leaves home at the beginning, with the encouragement of his grandmother. He goes out to find out what love is. She sees him off and he goes. I do not find that an easy, sentimental moment to read. I think, “holy crap, kid on my lap, don’t leave me.” I am not, as a parent, as strong as the grandmother, who says, “If you go out into the world, you might find an answer.” Give me a few years. And a few more years than that, ok? The text leaves it at that– the art shows the grandmother watching, and waving, while the boy doesn’t look back. Oof.
More, the boy encounters a huge range of people (and animals) with a range of experiences of what love is. But as each explanation is offered, the boy knocks it down, and the carpenter, the actor, the poet and more reply, “You do not understand.”
Until the boy goes home. (Shit, I’m about to cry. I’ll leave that bit to you.)
So, yes, maybe that rupture, that pathos from the very first pages when you already feel a wrench– maybe that’s enough? But I think it’s more.
Enter Carson Ellis, enter the collaboration. Carson Ellis– wait, what? I was just about to say she was a Caldecott Award Winner, but apparently she “just” got a Caldecott Honor, which is obviously impressive enough, I never got a Caldecott Honor. But anyway– Carson Ellis, in my heart you’re a winner. Excuse my digression. (Wait, another digression: I need a word with the Caldecott folks, because did you know Barbara McClintock never won the Caldecott, either? CRAZY.) (Now I’m done.)
Look, Mac Barnett has collaborated with a wide range of great artists. Like many, I particularly adore Jon Klassen’s beautiful, funny, deadpan collaborations with Mac Barnett. But this is the first time he’s worked with Carson Ellis, though they’ve been friends for years, and she nailed it. No one else could have done the art for this book. It has the right level of detail, the right level of deliberate vagueness: take a look at the night behind the cat, or the poet’s chair with the the sunset over him. Look at the garden in morning and the garden at night. And yet, there’s a subtle washed feeling, a kind of beautiful nuanced blankness that lets you finish the images in your mind. Such as time period. When does this book take place, and where, for example? The boy’s clothing doesn’t tell you much, and the poet is timeless.
There’s also the question of tone, of atmosphere. The fluidity of Carson’s art doesn’t pin it down, but flows gently, deliberately, warmly, colourfully into every nuance of the tone of the text: the boy leaving feels natural and painful at the same time, the fish is both funny and beautiful, and the poet’s love of language feels exalted while the boy’s desire for a straightforward answer, dammit, is so easy to relate to! This would not be the case without Carson Ellis’s human and humane and beautiful art. (Cough, give the lady a Caldecott for this book, it’s insanely good art right here.)
And that’s the thing. She hears the words, working with a powerful focus on the text. Mac Barnett leaves a lot of room for the art to do more than half the work. That is friendship, collaboration– that is love.
Mac Barnett dedicated this book to his wife, Taylor, and Carson Ellis to her grandmas Helen, Claudia, and Ruth (doubtless thinking of the wonderful grandmother in the book), but I can’t help but feel the book is, in itself, a testimony to the loving collaboration of a perfect picture book team.
What Is Love?
This book. This book is a work of love, and I’ve already choked up more than once, reading it aloud to my kids, whom I love, and thinking about the book as the answer to the question of the book.
(Also: My kids themselves, for me. The Changeling and the Spriggan, looking out the window together as the fresh snow fell, that was love in a nutshell.)
(And, Passports Canada? There’s room in the world for multiple books about love, OK? We’re friends, right?)