Matt de la Peña’s new picture book, Love, with stunning artwork by Loren Long, is already a New York Times bestseller. The lyrical and moving meditation on love has resonated with critics and with readers young and old alike. Writing about love is no easy undertaking and de la Peña has managed to do so in a way that not only stirs our hearts and minds, but also expands our very concept of this emotion. We chatted with Matt about how he set out to capture the feeling of love, the surprising journey that exploration took him on, and how he’s found love in all kinds of places.
To describe what love feels like is, in some ways, a pretty daunting task. How did you get started?
The whole thing began as a reaction to the current divisiveness we’re seeing in our country. It seems like every time I turn on the TV, it’s someone bashing someone else, or it’s a bashing of the bashing. So I set out to write a comforting poem about love. And you’re right, I quickly realized it was a pretty massive undertaking. But I eventually settled on this: I could only write my own perception of love. In the hands of any other person, it would be something else. We’re all unique like that. We’re all moved by different things. And it turned out my vision of love included some darker elements.
You don’t shy away from talking about the more complicated aspects of love in this book — love lost, relationships broken, the need to protect those we love. Can you talk a bit more about that decision to include the dark along with the light?
I tried to make the book purely uplifting, but I kept feeling like there was something missing. And then I had an epiphany about the arc of the poem. I wasn’t following a single character, I was charting the evolution of love in a child’s life. In the beginning, love is handed to us (if we’re fortunate enough to have at least one caring parent or caregiver). This love is vital. But it’s also incomplete. Eventually a child must be able to find love on his or her own. In the small things. This is when we learn to look outside of ourselves. So I wanted to have a sort of fall from grace. But when the child comes out on the other end of that fall, he or she is equipped for a more profound sense of love, which maybe culminates in a love of oneself. I guess I just wanted to acknowledge that love isn’t always light.
The book expands the notion of love to include not only people but places and things — the smell of crashing waves, stars burning in the sky, a slice of burned toast. Why were these important elements of the story?
Humans are often consumed with human things. But love is everywhere, even in inanimate objects. We’re so lucky to be alive. To know the sky, and the smell of the ocean, and the power of a storm. I feel like it would be pretty narrow to stick to humans in a book like this — even though it’s ultimately a book about humans.
Love feels like it’s written as much for grown-ups as it is for kids. Was that intentional?
I wish I was smart enough to consider my audience. I just write what is moving me the most at the time, and I let the publisher figure out what to do with it. I feel like Love is written for me as much as it’s written for my three-year-old daughter. But I have to tell you, there are some truly profound ideas being explored in picture books these days. I read my own when I visit high schools a lot of the time.
What was it like working with Loren Long? Were there any illustrations you were particularly stunned by?
Loren Long made this poem a picture book. When I first saw his art, I understood how it could make sense for children. My favorite part about the art is that he tried a brand-new technique. He sort of embraced the fact that love isn’t perfect. He took my poem and made it bigger and better than it ever could have been on its own. The spread that moves me the most is the big face, when the child turns inward in her search for love. We talked a lot about this moment. We knew the race we chose was vital. Because the girl here is looking inward, but visually she’s also staring directly at the reader, daring us to ignore her existence.
What’s one of the most unexpected places you’ve ever spotted love?
I remember this one moment from my childhood. I was ten. We were all at my Mexican grandma’s house for Mother’s Day. One of my older cousins found out something terrible had happened to her boyfriend at the time. She was inconsolable. She climbed under the glass coffee table in the living room and refused to come out. It didn’t matter what anyone said. Her mom couldn’t talk her into coming out. Her dad. Finally my grandma climbed under the table, too. And she held her. Never said a word. That was love, I think. My old, arthritic grandmother climbing under the table to hold my crying cousin. And me watching.