New Picture Books Pose Two of Life’s Biggest Questions

By Paul O. Zelinsky

HOW BEAUTIFUL
Written by Antonella Capetti
Illustrated by Melissa Castrillón
Translated by Lisa Topi

WHAT IS LOVE?
Written by Mac Barnett
Illustrated by Carson Ellis

Memorable children’s books often display a clear and simple structure. In one common form, a protagonist with a question will pose it to a succession of others. It’s a fun training ground to understand point of view. Each answer offers someone else’s. Usually the question is a simple one: Did you see a mouse? Have you seen my hat?

In two new picture books with text featuring repeated questions, what’s asked isn’t so simple. “How Beautiful,” by Antonella Capetti and Melissa Castrillón, puts the question “What does beautiful mean?” in the mouth of a caterpillar. “What Is Love?,” by Mac Barnett and the Caldecott honoree Carson Ellis, has a boy pose its title question. Both books seem to aim higher than mere entertainment.

In these disturbing times, authors, parents, editors and just about everyone else long for answers to big questions — a longing that has burrowed down to books for the very young. We’re seeing large numbers of picture books that explore important and serious themes — ways to make the world better, reassurance that everyone matters — with an explicitness that gives me pause: Are these issues that engage small children? Do the books work as intended? What’s certain is that when presented with books on the most abstract of themes, children will make of them what they make of them.

Of the two new books, “How Beautiful” is more down-to-earth. Its setting is the forest floor. An “Unknown Thing” (a girl) has found a caterpillar and called it beautiful, so now this tiny creature is possessed by the need to understand that word. It asks one animal after another, each one responding with a thing it deems beautiful (bear: a honeycomb; mouse: a mushroom; mole: the underground). But an intrusive blackbird contradicts each answer: That thing is not beautiful, it says; maybe just tasty or useful or cozy. In the end, a giant moon rises. The gathered animals gasp. “How beautiful!” they all exclaim. “So it was.”

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    Children pick up words largely by inference, so perhaps this one uncontested example, the moon, could serve to define beauty. In fact, though, the book suffers from an impossible translation problem: The Italian bello has a far wider-ranging meaning than the English beautiful: In context, “Questo è bello” can mean “this is great (in a general way)” rather than “this is beautiful.” So the crow’s disagreements make more sense in Capetti’s Italian than in the English; the bird’s issues aren’t aesthetic. The Italian text ends with an awed silence, subtly suggesting deeper levels of meaning in a story that is about the meaning of a word.

    The spirit of awe is fully available to a 4-year-old. But the importance of understanding the concept of beauty? Not so much. A small inner me wondered why this quest for a definition was so important to the caterpillar. Yet the series of animals with answers is humorous and varied. My favorite among them is a deer posed on an abandoned couch in the woods. (Beautiful couch? Maybe not. Great place to be? Yes.)

    Luckily, translation had no effect on Castrillón’s striking pictures, which more than make up for problems with the text. Her wild drawings carry a decorative impulse to unexpected heights. Her unique style hasn’t much changed from earlier books (see her collaborations with Nina Laden), and I imagine one could overdose, but not me, not yet.

    The animals have a droll folk-art quality and the caterpillar is adorable, but it’s their environment that dazzles. Oddly colored, with a narrow but beautiful palette, the pictures are equal parts goofy and elegant. Each page turn reveals a new way of deploying hallucinogenic wonder across a two-page spread. This, too, is a definition of beautiful.

    As for love, do you need a definition of the word to experience it?

    “What is love?” a boy asks his grandmother in Barnett and Ellis’s book. She picks him up and says, “If you go out into the world, you might find an answer.” So he goes. “Love is a fish,” says the fisherman. “Love is a house,” says the carpenter. As the boy rejects each answer, the fable-like text builds to a crescendo of solutions, both serious and amusing: A mass of people of all types proudly parade their love metaphors across the page. Finally the boy, now grown, returns to his old home. In a moving passage, he absorbs the scene through all his senses, digging his toes into the dirt. His grandmother appears and asks if he has found his answer. He picks her up and replies, “Yes.”

    My adult self sees a meaning here: Trying to understand love through other people’s words is no substitute for experience — for feeling, and being there for someone. My inner child, with whom the need to understand “what is love” struck no resonant chord, recoils at the picking up of a grandmother, is a bit mystified about that “yes” and goes back to look at the pictures.

    Ellis’s immaculate design sense infuses this book with a dignity and grace that adds power to the words. In her gouache drawings every watery bloom and ragged edge helps to strengthen the composition, build the space. The art is tactile and lively, playful and solemn. It recalls good midcentury illustration — artists like Alice and Martin Provensen and Heinz Edelmann — with hints of outsider art. A bit of blankness in the depiction of people, which in another kind of story could detract, here adds to the timeless quality of the words. The shapes and patterns of Ellis’s art, combined with the tenor of Barnett’s narration, give this book an air of mystery, whatever love is or isn’t.

    If ideas in a text go over a child’s head, it’s not a problem. Early in life, that over-the-head airspace is a barrage of words sailing by; you’re used to it. You guess, you assume, you go on. The failed book is one that doesn’t engage on some other level. A sense of story with a tangible theme, a good rhythm and a set of brilliant illustrations are what a child needs. At the start of life, the small questions want answering most of all.

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