I may be typing this on Valentine’s Day, but you won’t see it till Friday, shortly after this holiday has passed and you’ve nearly consumed all your chocolates. But I think that we can celebrate Valentine’s Day all week. And I’m doing so in that most time-honored, romantic of ways with something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue in the form of some picture book-valentines. Let’s dive right in, remaining chocolates in hand.
My first valentine, something old, is James Marshall and Edward Lear’s The Owl and the Pussycat, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. Now out of print and long-forgotten, this was Marshall’s last book. The paintings—watercolors I had the pleasure of holding in my hands years ago at the University of Connecticut’s Archives & Special Collections—are “strangely moving and altogether personal.” Those are the words of Maurice Sendak, who provided a touching and incisive afterword to the book.
Sendak writes about telling his dear friend Marshall what he thought of the watercolor paintings for Lear’s famous ballad. At the time, Marshall was very ill and near death. “He knew it was more than likely he wouldn’t live to ‘finish’ this book,” Sendak wrote, “in the sense of redoing all the pictures; in his sense, simply, of perfecting them.” (Marshall was known to work and re-work many of his drawings.) Sendak loved the artwork, however, just as it was: “[Marshall’s] charming slap-happiness was now wed to an odd poignancy that conjured a sweet new essence,” Sendak wrote. This “sweet new essence” could possibly be attributed to the fact that Marshall dedicated the book to William James Gray, his own valentine.
The owl and the pussycat may be one of literature’s most enduring duos and I’m sure they’d appreciate some alone time, dining on mince as they are. But I like to imagine Marshall in the afterlife, joining them momentarily (maybe “for a year and a day”)—cutting in as they dance by the light of the moon.
My valentine choice, despite its title, for something new is Carter Higgins’s This is Not a Valentine, illustrated by Lucy Ruth Cummins. This is the story of Kevin and his crush, a girl in his class he woos with words and gifts he insists are not actually valentines. “This is not a valentine,” he says (one in a series of enthusiastic, long-winded tributes), “since I don’t only like you today. I like you tomorrow and next Tuesday and last week, too.” It’s evident he thinks highly of this girl, given that all of his not-valentines are filled with nuanced observations. Love is attention, after all, as proven by the plastic ring he gets from a grocery-store vending machine that he knows matches her “best shoelaces.” Cummins’s relaxed, sketchy lines on uncluttered backgrounds let their friendship, and all the many earnest, unassuming gifts, shine. Kevin may contend that the gifts therein are not valentine-valentines, but this story will be the best valentine of a picture book you read this year.
For something blue (and also new)—and I mean a book with the bluest of blue palettes—there’s Sara O’Leary’s The Boy and the Blue Moon, illustrated by Ashley Crowley. Save some white and pops of red, blue is the name of the game. And what a magical story it is, one that doesn’t let excessive whimsy or sentimentality get in the way (which would have been easy to do here). It’s the story of a boy and his cat (blue, of course), who take a walk on the night of the blue moon, when “anything can happen.” Is all or some of it a dream? The boy ultimately wakes up in his bed. No matter. The experience itself, and all the feelings and joy it conjures, is real enough for the boy.
The boy and his pet walk past bluebells in a forest, as they hear birds singing (or “it might have been dragons”). A lake appears in a place where, before, there had been no water. It is a deep blue, and the boy and the cat jump into a boat, rowing towards the shimmering blue moon in the sky. They boy has always wanted to see the moon, and his wish comes true. The two tumble and play and consider a new life on the moon, but then he sees his own porch light on the blue planet that is Earth (“but perhaps it was just a star”). They fly home.
The text here is remarkable in what the Kirkus review calls its “poetic otherworldly-ness” (“a hundred thousand tiny bells were ringing out a song that no one ever had ever heard before,” O’Leary writes), as well as its length. Spare picture books texts, even those for older readers, seem to dominate these days, but this is a text descriptive and eloquent. It’s a story that sits, thematically, on the shoulders of a few predecessors without tediously mimicking them—The Little Prince and Where the Wild Things Are, as noted in the Kirkus review. I also think of Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman when I see the boy and his cat flying over a wintry landscape, almost back home in their warm, blue house. The whole thing is utterly enchanting and, I dare say, over the moon.
I skipped “something borrowed” but did so intentionally. That is, I’m saving it for last—as a reminder that you can borrow all of these books from your local library. (See what I did there?) I wish you happy reading with your own valentine. Here’s hoping that person is the kind who notices the color of your best shoelaces.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.
THIS IS NOT A VALENTINE. Copyright © 2017 by Carter Higgins. Illustrations © 2017 by Lucy Ruth Cummins and reproduced by permission of the publisher, Chronicle Books, San Francisco.
THE BOY AND THE BLUE MOON. Text copyright © 2018 by Sara O'Leary. Illustrations © 2018 by Ashley Crowley and reproduced by permission of the publisher, Godwin Books/Henry Holt, New York.