what is love?

Monday, October 18, 2021 |

Over the summer I went to the first-ever Picture Book Palooza!, a virtual event hosted by School Library Journal. In the past, I’ve read picture books either purely for enjoyment or in order to recommend (or gift!) them to the littles in my life. Recently, I’ve been thinking about how to use picture books in my classroom: viewing picture books as complex texts to illustrate the writing process to students, and the different ways you can construct stories. One of the picture books featured at the Picture Book Palooza! was What Is Love? by Mac Barnett, and illustrated by Carson Ellis. It would be the perfect book to teach metaphor to students young and old.


what is love? by mac barnett and carson ellis book cover
A tender, funny tale celebrating all forms of love from award-winning and bestselling author-illustrator duo Mac Barnett and Carson Ellis. 

“What is love?” a young boy asks. “I can’t answer that,” his grandmother says, and so the boy goes out into the world to find out. But while each person he meets—the fisherman, the actor, and others—has an answer to his question, not one seems quite right. Could love really be a fish, or applause, or the night? Or could it actually be something much closer to home?


When a young person asks their grandmother, “What is love?” she says that she can’t answer that, and that the narrator must go out into the world to find the answer. Each person the narrator comes across tells them that love is a different thing: a fish, applause, the night, a house… and many more things, besides! In the end, the narrator, exhausted and frustrated, heads home. Standing barefoot in the garden, with a hug from their grandmother, they finally realize that they do know what love is.

 

Barnett’s story is a meditation on the meaning of love, told through a journey and metaphor. The text is clever and rhythmic, and there are bright sparks of humor in between longer poetic passages. It will be a read aloud hit for storytimes, bedtimes, and with grandparents and parents. I especially appreciated the extended use of figurative language, first person point of view, and the narrator’s frustration after being told over and over again, “You do not understand!” This book unites both abstract thought/higher level thinking and young learners’ inevitable frustration with the non-literal – and it encourages understanding without condescension.

 

Of course no discussion of a picture book is complete without talking about the art! Barnett’s text is accompanied by Carson Ellis’ lovely paintings of each of the things that the narrator is told love is. Ellis’ illustrations are gouache on watercolor paper – and the art feels a little bit like watercolor inside-out – some of the same layering of color, but brighter, more vibrant against the white background from the start, with a modern, rustic feel. The vibrant colors, sense of movement, and variety between page spreads should inspire readers just as much as the words on the page.

 

In all, What Is Love? is a lovely, deep thinking sort of picture book for adults, and a poetic, funny introduction to metaphor for younger readers – one that does not underestimate them!

 

Recommended for: readers ages 3-5 (and up!), those who enjoyed Tiny, Perfect Things and The Night Box, and anyone looking for pictures books that do well as read alouds and also as answers to life’s big questions.

 

what is love? carson ellis illustration

What Is Love? will be available from Chronicle Books on December 28, 2021.

 

Fine print: I received an e-ARC of this title from the publisher for review consideration. I did not receive any compensation for this post.

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