As is clear to any parent who reads books to his or her children, there is a gulf between what adults want their children to read and what children actually want to read. One of the reasons Love, the new book from author Matt de la Peña and illustrator Loren Long, is such an exceptional piece of children’s literature is that it is both a parent-approved meditation on selfless kindness and a kid-friendly series of illustrated stories. Each spread has depth and mystery that not only augments the language, but builds stories independent from it.
There’s one spread in particular, that falls almost exactly in the middle of the book, that sticks. In it, a boy cowers underneath a piano, comforted by his dog. A half-empty tumbler of a brown liquid sits on a piano near a metronome stuck mid-tick. In the foreground, a lamp and a chair lay on the ground, overturned. To the right, a man steps out of the frame, his shirt untucked and the sleeve unbuttoned. Only his leg and one arm are visible. To the left, a woman enters the frame, her face buried in her hands. The text, split by the fold, reads: “It’s not only stars that flame out, you discover. It’s summers, too. And friendships. And people.”
It’s unusual to see something so real in a general interest children’s book. These types of scenes do exist but usually they’re confined to what are called “social issues books.” These books have titles like A Terrible Thing Happened and I Wish Daddy Didn’t Drink So Much. Some of them are wonderful, but they generally enjoy less robust distribution for fairly obvious reasons.
The so-called piano spread is not the only in the book that flirts with darkness – there’s a 9/11 page spread immediately after it – but it is the most haunting image in a book that lands with emotional impact.
“When we got to that spread,” de la Peña says, “I knew the easy thing would be to depict a funeral or the end of the school year or something. But both of us were like, ‘What if we just went for it? What would that look like?’”
“I thought,” Long chimes in, “we could go straight at it a little bit more. With the divorce rate in the country, half of the children out there could be the kid under the piano.” For Loren, who says addiction runs in his family, the image is especially resonant.
The collaborators sat down with Fatherly to break down how the spread works and how they used art to create an image that children could understand and learn from and that adults, unfortunately, might recognize.
Long adopted a new illustration style for Love than he’d employed in his previous books. He collaged monotypes and worked in acrylic paint in order to give the images raw energy. He also played with perspective, which is heavily distorted in this spread. The angles are impossible and jangling. The jutting keyboard, the bench pushed down and out, and the claustrophobic lines of the parquet floor create tension. Anger warps the room.
The Grand Piano
Both Long and de la Peña stress how important diversity is to the book. “Not just racial diversity,” says de la Peña, “but socioeconomic, geographic, and ideological diversity as well.” Earlier in the book, there’s a spread featuring a man with a mustache dancing with his daughter on top of a trailer. A broken pick-up truck sits on cinder blocks in his backyard. It is clear that these people are poor and unclear whether or not they are also happy.
When it came to the piano spread, de la Peña was adamant the family be upper middle class. “We don’t want it to imply that this is what happens in run-down neighborhoods.” To that end, Long included signifiers of wealth. Built-in bookshelves line one wall. The piano is a grand (average price of $19,000). The floors are herringbone parquet, indicating mid-century vintage. The man wears pinstripe pants and leather Oxfords. He is clearly a white caller worker. Still, he drinks and he’s angry. It’s not enough.
The most interesting detail may be the old-style metronome, its pendulum forever stuck on the far-end of the click. It indicates sound and time. It indicates that the piano was being played and bathes the reader in the silence that has clearly followed an explosion of noise and tempers. The air in the room is heavy and quiet, with only the tick-tick-tick of the metronome’s unceasing timekeeping and the muffled cries of the mother weeping into her hands. Like grief and sadness, the metronome is incessant.
The Whiskey Glass
The glass on top of the piano extends the story backward. “At first instead of a glass there was a bottle of whiskey,” says de la Peña, “But our editor was like, we’re going too far.” Compositionally, the whiskey glass forms one corner of a triangle on the right -hand page. The other two points are the overturned chair and the father’s figure. Quite literally left out is the boy curled up underneath the piano, comforted only by a dog. Would the piece have worked without the glass, pregnant with its implication of alcoholism? Yes, certainly many marital fights take place without lubrication. And the terror here isn’t so much the fight but the upturned chair and lamp. Yet, specifically for Loren, the alcohol is important.
“I’ve had addiction in my family,” he says. “It was important to me to acknowledge that portion of our children in the world who see addiction and show them that there’s still love in that image. Just because your parents may have a disagreement that doesn’t mean that father doesn’t love that kid or that he’s not coming back.”