BookDragon Books for the Diverse Reader

What Is Love? by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Carson Ellis [in Shelf Awareness]

Mac Barnett (Paolo, Emperor of Rome), lauded author of dozens of titles, poses a timeless question that has no absolute response in What Is Love?, a poignant, often humorous exploration of one of life’s most personal experiences. “When I was a boy,” Barnett’s story begins, “in the garden out front of the house where we lived, I asked my grandmother, ‘What is love?’ ” Being old, he thinks, must mean his grandmother would know. Instead, being wise, she encourages, “If you go out into the world, you might find an answer.”

And so, the boy ventures forth, querying all manner of people. Their answers vary: a fisherman insists “Love is a fish”; an actor, applause; a carpenter, a house; a farmer, a seed; a soldier, a blade. Even a cat opines “love is the night,” until a dog insists “this!” – a surprising chase – is love. None of the interpretations seem quite right, but the boy’s doubts are met with repeated admonishments of “You do not understand.” Yet the boy finally perceives enough to return to the house that is home where he finds wafting smells of dinner, the happy barks of his dog, his welcoming garden, and, most importantly, his beloved grandmother.

Caldecott Honor artist Carson Ellis (Duz Iz Tak) invitingly renders the child’s quest in vibrant, multi-layered spreads of gouache on watercolor paper. Her illustrations beckon audiences into bloom-bursting fields, rolling paths through hills and sky, a rose-strewn stage, and parades of people toting their personal symbols of devoted inspiration. Barnett, meanwhile, gently underscores to all readers the familiar, rewarding comforts of true, unconditional love.

Discover: When a boy sets out to discover What Is Love?, many voices respond, but he must find his own answers in this touching, timeless affirmation of familial and familiar bonds.

Review: “Children’s & Young Adult,” Shelf Awareness, December 28, 2021

Readers: Adult

Published: 2021


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