Overturned furniture clutters the room. Mom cries in the corner with her head in her hands as dad gesticulates wildly, halfway out of the door. He’s drunk. An empty whiskey glass sits on top of the piano in the middle of the room. A whimpering child huddles underneath with only his dog to comfort him.
These are details from an illustration in Matt de la Peña’s best-selling children’s book “LOVE.” The text reads “It’s not only stars that flame out, you discover. It’s summers too. And friendships. And people.”
On the back of the book, the blurb from The New York Times reads “Everything that can be called love — from shared joy to comfort in the darkness — is gathered in the pages of this reassuring, refreshingly honest picture book.”
Honest? You bet. Refreshing? Not so much.
Illustrated by Loren Long, De la Peña’s best-seller normalizes broken families to an audience of 4 – 8 year olds.
“LOVE” climbed the New York Times top ten children’s best sellers list in February, hitting #1 in mid March. It’s no wonder why. With soft and vibrant illustrations and simple, lyrical text, “LOVE’s” aesthetic qualities promise the reader that everything will be alright. But this is a promise that the book breaks.
Particularly the first page, a baby’s view from the crib looking up at a smiling mother and father surrounded by a halo of light, soothes and convinces the reader to let his guard down. The opening lines resound with nearly Biblical stability: “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.” The book trails on like this with no narrative arc, listing images that give concrete form to the abstract idea of love. The sound of mom and dad’s voice, the buzz of the radio in a cab, the crashing of the waves on the beach — de la Peña writes that all of these are love. So far so sweet, right?
Well, the book soon takes a dark turn as it explores the harsh reality of troubled marriages and broken families.
Another illustration shows the back of a small boy staring out of a window at his father, trudging through the snow on his way to work. A barely-older brother stands in profile, offering a breakfast of toast and orange juice to the parentally deprived youngster. Mom is nowhere to be seen. The text reads “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.”
While these poignant scenes are well executed and while they do express the hidden love in bad situations — good ‘ole Fido in the first instance, and a loving big brother bearing juice in the second — they aren’t for young children. They are heartbreaking. What is de la Peña up to?
In an interview with The Washington Post, de la Peña explained that these images are a way of inoculating children for their future experiences: “Not everything that happens is what we hope to have happen,” he said. “Not everything is positive. Acknowledging that adversity exists is important — but also wrapping it in love. It’s like the flu vaccination — you get a little taste of it so your body can be more resilient. A book can do that, too. If you know that sadness exists, maybe you will be more adept at handling that sadness in real life.”
De la Peña is not wrong. Children will grow up to experience sadness first hand, but does that mean that we should spoon feed them sadness from a young age? Why are we trying to normalize divorce and broken families?
Rather than educating children about the sadness and the grit of the real world, perhaps children’s literature should provide children with a vision of the world as it ought to be. It should display models of strong families that stick together regardless of adversity — models of mothers and fathers that love each other and take care of their kids. That way when children grow up and encounter broken families, instead of being numb or immune, they will be sad — as they should be — and they will know why they are sad. Realizing dissonance in the world, they will pursue the stability of the examples that they were shown when they were children.
William Kilpatrick, Gregory Wolfe, and Suzanne Wolfe argue for this model of children’s literature in their book titled “Books That Build Character: A Guide to Teaching Your Child Moral Values Through Stories.” They argue that children need their books to give them “a prime meridian — a fixed standard — to reach their destinations in life.”
It’s as if Kilpatrick and the Wolfes write with “LOVE” in mind. Offering “a criticism of an approach [to children’s literature] that wants to give children only the slice of reality that they already have,” they explain how “there is a danger in trying to accomodate fiction to every new social malady, the danger being that, after a while, no one remembers what a stable family looks like. It’s not possible to break the cycle of broken or unformed marriages unless you have a picture in mind of what the alternative is.”
They go on to quote children’s author Jane Yolen, who argues that good children’s literature “tells us of a world as it should be. It holds certain values to be important. It makes issues clear … it becomes a rehearsal for the reader for life as it should be lived.”
This is not to bar children’s literature from dealing with conflict, sadness, or darkness. In fact, the best children’s books ever written deal with big problems. The difference is that good children’s literature doesn’t just dwell in darkness; it also offers hope. Take Cinderella, for example. Talk about a broken family! Mother dies and father marries a nightmare of a stepmother. But Charles Perrault does not write to prepare children for the reality of wicked stepmothers so much as to give them a model of virtue in the character of Cinderella as well as hope in the ultimate restoration of the world.
Matt de la Peña and Loren Long are both Newbery Medal Award winners. Rather than trying to inoculate children with a divorce vaccine, they should be using their considerable skills to meet our children’s need for hope and a fixed standard in a quaking world.