“Love is the only force capable of turning an enemy into a friend,” said Dr. Martin Luther King. “All you need is love,” sang the Beatles. And in one of my favorite romantic comedies, actor Hugh Grant professed “Love is all around.” So, this Valentines Day, meaningfully explore this idea with students by reading aloud the important new picture book collaboration Love, written by Matt de la Pena and illustrated by Loren Long. Love does not pull punches on depicting the scarier realities that too many of our children face; In Time Magazine, Matt de la Pena writes beautifully about his fight to keep this illustration in the book after early reviews commented that it was too dark for a children’s book. It’s a complex book deserving re-reading and discussion, so here are some page-by-page tips for opening up its richness for your learners:
Decide for yourself what you take away. For example, after reading this book to myself a few times, I might summarize it for myself like this: Love is a poignant tale of the many iterations of love that exist in a child’s life. The text and illustrations highlight the love between parents and their young child, between uncles and their nephew, between policemen and the community they serve, between a grandfather teaching his grandson how to fish. Love is found in the kind gesture of a child offering a homeless man a hot meal. Love can be self-love, as reflected in “the face staring back in the bathroom mirror”. Love is all around from the moment we are born to the moment we leave home. Getting clear in your own mind about what resonates will help you focus your read aloud.
Ask yourself, what reading tools are most essential to understanding this book? With this text, I would focus on author and illustrator’s purpose, and inferring. For example, the illustrations show characters of various cultural, religious, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Characters wear hijabs, others dance on the roof of their trailer. Even with these explicit details, it requires a reader to infer that the creators’ purpose is to support an inclusive, expansive definition of love. Let’s dive into these specific instances presented in the book.
First, page 1 presents an opportune time to model inferring, when a reader makes a mental leap to decide something that is probably true. An inference is something that author or illustrator prompts us to think, feel, or know. The text reads as follows:
In the beginning there is light / and two wide-eyed figures standing / near the foot of your bed,/ and the sound of their voices is love.”
I’d use the following language to help readers understand the hidden message here:
“I’m getting the sense that these parents are staring at a new baby in its crib. In the illustration, I can see the railings of a crib and a stuffed animal. The words say, “In the beginning” so I’m getting the sense that the beginning is the beginning of a baby’s life. The author doesn’t tell me, but I’m getting the sense that these two figures are parents and they are looking at their new baby in its crib with love in their eyes.”
Next, on pages 11-12 is an additional opportunity for inferring. This double-page spread shows a child huddled in fear under a piano. On top of the piano sits an old fashioned glass with an amber liquid, the surrounding furniture is overturned, and a woman cries into her hands. Readers might infer that there has been a fight between the boy’s parents, perhaps made worse by drinking alcohol. The lines of the text do not provide clues, so I’d use the following to model making an inference from the illustration:
“Right away I see a boy huddled under the piano—the way that he’s huddling and hugging himself makes me think he’s scared or sad. I’m going to use the clues in the picture to help me think through what might be going on. In the corner, I see a woman hiding her face in her hands—maybe she’s crying or sad. I also see that a lamp and a chair are overturned and a painting is crooked. I’m thinking that there was a fight between these two people who maybe are this boy’s parents. I also see on top of the piano that there is a glass with a dark liquid in it. Maybe the grownups drank too much and they are fighting and the boy is scared.”
On page 20, we see an illustration of a young boy gazing out of the window. He’s watching an adult figure tromp through the snow in pursuit of a bus. Next to the boy stands an older sibling, offering him a glass of orange juice and a plate of food. Without a think aloud highlighting inferring, a young reader might miss the notion about another form of love—the sacrifices that a parent makes to provide for their children and when an older sibling acts as a caretaker for a younger one. The text reads as follows:
“And in time you learn to recognize / a love overlooked. / A love that wakes at dawn and rides to work on the bus. /A slice of burned toast that tastes like love.”
I’d provide a think aloud similar to this:
“The author doesn’t come right out and say it, but I’m thinking that this page is about two different kinds of love. First, we’ve got the love that a parent shows by taking a bus in the snow to a job. That’s a sacrifice a parent makes to take care of his children. Second, I’m guessing that this person is an older sibling, who helps take care of his younger sibling when the parent is at work. From the clues in the picture – the juice and the burned toast – I’m getting the sense that this is breakfast and the father left early in the morning. Maybe this older child helps his younger sibling get ready for school – I know the toast is burned, so maybe the older sibling has made it to help out his sibling. This page shows me two kinds of love – love is between a parent and a child and love is between siblings who help each other.”
By page 31, you’re probably reaching for your Kleenex box now (as I was). But let’s examine the page at hand which speaks of the love that parents demonstrate as they send their now-grown babies into the world of adulthood. The words tell us that “when the time comes for you to set off on your own," implying that the child from the first page of the book is now grown – perhaps off to college, or the military, or a new city, or a new job. More specifically, the line reads as follows:
“Your loved ones will stand there like /puddles beneath their umbrellas,/ holding you tight and kissing you/ and wishing you luck.”
To help readers understand the tender combination of sadness parents feel upon their child’s departure and joy for the adventures ahead, I might think aloud as such:
“What the author is trying to say is when you’re grown, the people who love you will send you out into the world with love. They will always be there when you need them, but they’re sending you off with the most important knowledge they can give – and that knowledge is love.”
The underlying message of this book and its illustrations is that love indeed is all around, in many forms and iterations. Love is pervasive and contagious. So, gather as a class and enjoy reading aloud with love.
Molly Ness is an associate professor of education at Fordham University and the author of Think Big with Think Alouds: A Three-Step Process that Develops Strategic Readers (Corwin Literacy, 2017). Find her on Twitter @drmollyness