There are an awful lot of children's books specifically about love. The titles ask a thousand variations on the questions, "Do you love me?" "Will you love me forever?" "How much do you love me" I hate to be a spoiler, but the answers turn out to be, respectively: "Yes," "Yes," and "More than you can possibly imagine with your little pea brain."
These books are cute, but I always suspect they are written for the benefit of the parents, and not so much for the kids. This is not necessarily a bad thing: it really can help to say the words " I love you very much, and I will never stop" out loud when perhaps you are shrieking inside your head, "What is the matter with you, and when will you stop?" Or does bedtime look different at your house?
Anyway, one typical structure of these books is a peculiar kind of one-upsmanship of affection: "Oh, you love me to the moon? Well, I love you to the moon and back!" And then there's the notorious Love You Forever, where the mother apparently lives inside her adult son's underwear drawer just in case he ever, ever, ever forgets for a single second that she loves him.
And let's not forget that skin-crawlingly loathsome classic, The Giving Tree, a book which makes St. Francis himself vomit with rage. But more about that in a future post.
Here's a short list of books for young kids that convey something about love (all with above-average illustrations). Add your favorites in the comments! Unless, of course, it's The Giving Tree.
One Potato, Two Potato By Cynthia DeFelice and Andrea U'ren
This one has an unusual focus: a very old couple, so poor they have to share everything, including a chair, a blanket, and the one last potato in the garden. A simple and hilarious story, but so much to unpack about what you really need in life. The illustrations are understated but extraordinary.
The Clown of God by Tomie dePaola
Sure, I'll read you this one, if you don't mind me blubbering all over the last page. A young boy has to make his own way in the world, and becomes a famous traveling clown with a signature juggling routine. But when he is old, no one wants to see his old tricks anymore -- nobody except one person, a stranger to the old man, but one who's been waiting for him and his gift.
Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
Okay, so it's not strictly about love, but the story is framed fore and aft by the unseen, dependable mother. She justly punishes Max for some genuinely wretched behavior -- but when her wild boy is ready to come home from his interior adventure with monsters, his dinner is waiting for him, "and it was still hot." What more could a boy want?
The Wild Swans by Hans Christian Andersen
Still searching for the name of the illustrator from my childhood edition of this book. No matter which copy I get, though, the final pages tend to be a little soggy -- not sure why. A strange and difficult fairy tale about a sister and her beloved brothers -- the boys cruelly changed into swans by a jealous stepmother, the gracious young sister a pillar of strength, working furiously for her brothers' salvation, keeping silent even as she's condemned to death. (And yes, it has a happy ending!)
Tikki Tikki Tembo by Arlene Mose, illustrated by Blair Lent
The mother blatantly prefers one child to the other -- so much so that she gives the first a long, elaborate name that means "the most wonderful thing in the whole wide world," while the other son is named "Chang," "which means 'little' or 'nothing'" (but the brothers clearly see each other as equals). But the first son's "great, long name" almost costs him his life, and it's only through his devoted brother's heroic struggle that the overly cherished son's life is saved. (I also always had lots of sympathy for the old man with the ladder, who just wants to lie down.)
Horton Hatches the Egg by Dr. Seuss
I hope everybody already knows this book. Steadfast, heroic, even ridiculous devotion trumps biology! True, that (and more pertinent than ever as advice columns are full of men wondering what to do because the DNA test showed that a beloved child is "not really his.")
Five Chinese Brothers by Claire Huchet Bishop, illustrated by Kurt Wiese
I've always thought of this one as a happier version of those seven brothers and their mother in Maccabees: the mother and the brothers are steadfast and strong, even as they're led to execution. But in this much more cheerful story, each one sacrifices himself for the others, standing in for the unjustly accused brother, using his unique and bizarre talents to save the day. Best family ever.
The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf, illustrated by Robert Lawson
Ferdinand is a bull who doesn't want to fight and butt and stick his horns around. He wants to sit just quietly and smell the flowers. And his mother doesn't harass him, because she is a good mother, even though she is a cow. That's all!
I suppose what I like about these books is that it's so obvious that the characters in them love each other because of what they do, not because of what they say. It's super duper easy to say, "I love you, I love you, I love you so much." And of course kids need to hear this! But they, and all of us, also need to see that love is action, not just words.